Film Review: Conan The Destroyer (dir by Richard Fleischer)


As you can probably tell just from looking at everything that’s been posted on the site today, I love the Oscars. That said, I realize that the Oscars aren’t for everyone. Some people find Oscar-nominated movies to be boring. Some people find the ceremony to be unbearably pompous. Every year, there’s the lament of “The truly entertaining films always get snubbed!”

Well, fear not! If you’re not into the Oscars, there are alternatives! For instance, you can go over to Prime right now and rent the 1984 film, Conan the Destroyer!

Conan The Destroyer is the sequel to the original Conan the Barbarian, with Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as Conan and Mako returning as the sorcerer who narrates the events of Conan’s life. This film is a continuation of the adventures of the barbarian who would become king, a trip to a world much different from our own, and a study of savagery vs civilization. Of course, to most viewers, Conan The Destroyer is just the film where a weird lizard monster picks up Arnold Schwarzenegger by his feet and spins him around in circles. Have you seen that meme where it’s made to appear as if Kate Winslet is spinning around a helpless Schwarzenegger? Along with Titanic, this is the film that you have to thank for it.

Conan The Destroyer picks up from where Conan the Barbarian ended. Conan is still wandering around the desert, working as a thief and a mercenary. He’s still praying to Crom and missing Valeria. He’s picked up a companion, a cowardly thief named Malak (Tracey Walter). When Conan and Malk are captured by Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas), Taramis offers to bring Valeria back to life if Conan will escort the Queen’s niece, Jehna (Olivia D’Abo), to a temple so that she can retrieve a gem that will be used to …. you know what? I’m just going to be honest here. I have absolutely no idea what the quest is about. It’s just one of those things where Conan and his crew have to break into a castle or a temple and steal something so that a god can either be awakened or defeated. The film, to be honest, is a bit vague about how it all works but then again, the mission is less important than the journey.

It turns out that, with the exception of her insanely tall bodyguard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain), Jehna has never seen an actual man before and, needless to say, she is quickly fascinated by Conan. (She asks Bombaata if Conan is as handsome as he appears to be, Bombaata reluctantly agrees that he is.) However, Conan only cares for the deceased Valeria. As he leads Jehna, Malak, and Bombaata to the castle where they’ll find the gem, he picks up some other traveling companions. The wizard Akiro (Mako) joins them as does the fierce warrior Zula (Grace Jones). Of course, it turns out that Taramis has an agenda of her own and it all ends in a lot of shouting, swordplay, and muscle flexing.

If Conan the Barbarian was distinguished by the grim and girtty approach that it took to material that others would have played for camp, Conan the Destroyer takes the opposite approach. Of course, a lot of that is because director/screenwriter John Milius did not return to oversee Conan the Destroyer. Instead, Conan the Destroyer was directed by Richard Fleischer, who was one of those veteran directors who made a countless number of films in all sorts of genres but who never really developed a signature style of his own. Fleischer takes a semi-comedic approach to Conan and his quest. As opposed to the brutal warrior and conqueror who appeared in Milius’s film, the Conan in this film is a well-meaning rogue who punches out a camel and who also gets tongue-tied whenever he has too much to drink or when Jehna flirts with him. There’s little of the first film’s violence in this sequel and none of the emotional stakes.

That said, Conan the Destroyer is definitely entertaining. It’s just such a silly movie that you can’t help but enjoy it. Schwarzenegger, apparently understanding that the film is never going to make any sense, cheerfully goes through the motions and he actually does a pretty good job with some of his more comedic lines. The allies and the villains who he collects through the film are all memorably flamboyant. Sarah Douglas is especially entertaining as the over-the-top villainous. If you’re going to be evil in a film like this, you might as well go all out.

Conan The Destroyer was not nominated for an Oscars but it’s still a fun movie.

Film Review: The Boston Strangler (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964, 13 women between the ages of 19 and 85 were murdered in the Boston area.  It was felt that they had all been killed by the same man, a monster known as The Boston Strangler.  Though the police investigated many suspects, they never made an arrest.  (One should remember that this was before the time of DNA testing or criminal profiling.  The term “serial killer” had not even been coined.  Today, sad to say, we take the existence of serial killers for granted.  In the 60s, it was still an exotic concept.)

In October of 1964, a man named Albert DeSalvo was arrested and charged with being “the Green Man,” a serial rapist who pretended to be a maintenance man in order to gain access to single women’s apartments.  After he was charged with rape, detectives were surprised when DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler.  When confessing to the murders, DeSalvo got a few minor details wrong but he also consistently included other details that the police hadn’t released to the general public.  Even when put under hypnosis, DeSalvo’s recalled those previously unreleased details.  Because DeSalvo was already going to get a life sentence on the rape charges and because there wasn’t any physical evidence that, in those pre-DNA, could have conclusively linked DeSalvo to the crimes, he was never actually charged with any of the murders.  Still, with his confessions, the cases were considered to be closed.

In 1966, before DeSalvo was even sentenced for the Green Man rapes, Gerold Frank wrote The Boston Strangler, a book about the murders, the investigations, and DeSalvo’s confessions.  It was one of the first true crime books and, in 1968, it was adapted into one of the first true crime films.

Directed by Richard Fleischer (whose filmography somehow includes not only this film but also Dr. Dolittle, Fantastic Voyage, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Conan The Destroyer, and Red Sonja), The Boston Strangler is really two films in one.  The first half deals with the crimes and the police (represented by Henry Fonda, George Kennedy, Murray Hamilton, and James Brolin) investigation.  This half of the film is pulpy and crudely effective, full of scenes of the cops rounding up every sex offender who they can find.  There’s a scene where Henry Fonda talks to a prominent man in a gay bar that’s handled with about as much sensitivity as you could expect from a 1960s studio film.  (On the one hand, the man is portrayed with respect and dignity and he’s even allowed to call out the patron saint of 1960s mainstream liberal piety, Henry Fonda, for being close-minded.  On the other hand, everyone else in the bar is a stereotype and we’re meant to laugh at the idea that anyone could think that Henry Fonda could be gay.)  Director Richard Fleischer makes good use of split screens, creating an effective atmosphere of paranoia.  The scene where a woman tries to keep an obscene caller on the phone long enough for the police to trace his location made my skin crawl and served as a reminder that perverts predate social media.  Another scene where a flamboyant psychic tries to help the police goes on for a bit too long but, at the same time, you’re happy for a little relief from crime scenes and terrified, elderly women discovering that their neighbors have been murdered.

The second half of the film features Tony Curtis as Albert DeSalvo.  Curtis is effective as DeSalvo, playing him as being a self-loathing brute who is incapable of controlling his impulses.  (Before committing one of his crimes, DeSalvo watches the funeral of John Kennedy, his face wracked with pain.  Is the film suggesting that DeSalvo murdered to deal with the stress of life in America or is it suggesting that the hate that killed Kennedy was a symptom of the same sickness that drove DeSalvo?  Or is the film just tossing in a then-recent event to get an easy emotional reaction from the audience?)  As one might expect from a mainstream film made in 1968, The Boston Strangler takes something of a wishy washy approach to the question of whether DeSalvo’s crimes were due to sickness or evil.  Yes, the film says, DeSalvo was bad but it’s still society’s fault for not realizing that he was bad.  It’s the type of approach designed to keep both the law-and-order types and the criminal justice reformers happy but it ultimately feels a bit like a cop out.  Still, the shots of DeSalvo isolated in his padding cell have an undeniable power and Curtis is both pathetic and frightening in the role.  In its more effective moments, the second half of the film works as a profile of a man imprisoned both physically and mentally.

Watching the film today, it’s hard not to consider how different The Boston Strangler is from the serial killer films that would follow it.  DeSalvo is not portrayed as being some sort of charming or interesting Hannibal Lecter or Dexter-type of killer.  Instead, he’s a loser, a barely literate idiot who struggled to articulate even the simplest of thoughts.  The cops aren’t rule-breakers or renegades.  Instead, they’re doing their jobs the best that they can.  Though the film ends with a title card saying that it’s important for society to make more of an effort to spot people like DeSalvo before they kill, The Boston Strangler has a surprising amount of faith in both the police and the law and it assumes that you feel the same way.  It’s a film that takes it for granted the audience respects and trusts authority.  It’s portrayal of the police is quite a contrast to the rebel cops who dominate pop culture today.

After the film came out, DeSalvo recanted his confessions and said that he had never killed anyone.  He was subsequently murdered in prison in 1971, not due to his crimes but instead because he was independently selling drugs for prices cheaper than what had been agreed upon by the prison’s syndicate.  After his death, many books were written proclaiming that DeSalvo was innocent and that the real Boston Strangler was still on the streets.  Others theorized that the actual Strangler was DeSalvo’s cellmate and DeSalvo, knowing he was going to prison for life regardless, confessed in return for money being sent to his family.  That said, in 2013, DNA evidence did appear to conclusively link DeSalvo to the murder of 19 year-old Mary Sullivan.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that DeSalvo necessarily committed the other 12 murders.  In fact, from what we’ve since learned about the pathology of serial killers, it would actually make more sense for the murders to have been committed by multiple killers as opposed to just one man.

Regardless of whether DeSalvo was guilty or not, The Boston Strangler is an uneven but ultimately effective journey into the heart of darkness.

TV Review: Night Gallery 1.1 “The Dead Man/The Housekeeper” (dir by Douglas Heyes and John Meredyth Lucas)


As I wrote yesterday, I recently decided to sit down and watch every episode of the horror anthology series, Night Gallery.  Yesterday, I watched and reviewed the pilot movie.  Tonight, I watched the first episode of the weekly series.

Though the pilot originally aired in 1969, Night Gallery did not start to air as a regular series until December of 1970.  The first episode of season one was broadcast on December 16th, 1970.  As all of the episodes did, it stated with Rod Serling walking through a dimly lit museum and inviting the audience to look at a macabre painting.  Each painting was inspired by a different story.  Or were the stories inspired by the paintings?  To be honest, I don’t think the show ever made that clear.

The first episode featured two stories, both of which dealt with mad scientists.

The Dead Man (written and directed by Douglas Heyes)

The first segment was The Dead Man, an enjoyably atmospheric if somewhat difficult-to-follow story about a scientist, a young man with an amazing ability, and the woman who is torn between the two of them.

Carl Betz plays Max Redford, a doctor who has discovered that, under hypnotic suggestion, John Michael Fearing (Michael Blodgett) can simulate any medical condition, no matter how severe.  When Max reveals his discovery to his associate, Dr. Talmadge (Jeff Corey), Talmadge is concerned that Fearing will suffer permanent damage as a result of Max’s experiments.  Nonsense! Max explains.  All he has to do is give Fearing the proper signal and he’ll pop right out of his condition, as good as new.

Max decides to put Fearing to the ultimate test by having him simulate death.  However, when Fearing goes under, he dies for real.  Was it just an accident or did Max — who suspects that Fearing was having an affair with his wife (Louise Sorel) — secretly mean for Fearing to die?

The Dead Man raises some intriguing questions about life, death, and medical ethics.  It also has a quartet of good performances with Carl Betz doing an especially good job as Max.  Michael Blodgett showed up in a lot of early 70s films and TV shows and he was always convincing as a decadent hedonist.  The entire segment is full of creepy atmosphere but the ending is a bit of a let down.  After a great set-up, the segment just kind of fizzles out.

The Housekeeper (written by Heyes, directed by John Meredyth Lucas)

In the second segment, our mad scientist is named Cedric Acton (Larry Hagman).  Whereas Max Redford, in the previous segment, was misguided, Cedric Acton is just crazy.  Through the use of black magic (it involves a frog), Cedric has been experimenting with soul and brain transference.  (There’s an oinking chicken and a clucking pig in his laboratory, just in case anyone’s wondering how the experiments are going.)

Because Cedric loves his wife’s body but hates her personality, he wants to put the soul of his kindly housekeeper (Jeanette Nolan) into the body of his wife, Carlotta (Suzy Parker).  At first, the experiment is a success but things get complicated and …. well, I’m not really sure what it all leads to because this is one of those stories that just kind of ends without really offering up any type of resolution.

The Housekeeper is meant to be a comedy but it’s a bit too mean-spirited to really work.  This segment really calls out for karma to intervene and for Cedric’s soul to end up in something else’s body but instead it just ends with Cedric continuing his experiments.  It’s more than a little dissatisfying.  Larry Hagman does a good job playing Cedric, though.  He’s convincingly crazy.

Especially after the pilot, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the first episode of Night Gallery.  Both stories had potential but they were let down by weak endings.  Oh well.  Hopefully, tomorrow’s episode will be an improvement!

Film Review: Cover Me, Babe (dir by Noel Black)


 

I don’t know if I’ve ever come across a non-horror film that featured a more off-putting lead character than Tony, the protagonist of 1970’s Cover Me, Babe.

A film student, Tony (Robert Forster, even in 1970, who was too old for the role) aspires to make avant-garde films.  Everyone in the film continually raves about how talented Tony is.  The footage that we see, however, tends to suggest that Tony is a pretentious phony.  The film opens with footage of a student film that Tony shot, one that involves his girlfriend, Melisse (Sondra Locke) sunbathing in the desert and getting groped by a hand that apparently lives under the sand.  It was so self-consciously arty that I assumed that it meant to be satirical and that we were supposed to laugh along as Tony assured everyone that it was a masterpiece.  And, to be honest, I’m still not sure that Cover Me, Babe wasn’t meant to be a satire on film school pretension.  I mean, that explanation makes about as much sense any other.  (Hilariously enough, Tony’s film had the same visual style as the film-within-a-film around which the storyline of Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind revolved.  At least in the case of Welles, we know that his intent was satirical.)

Tony is not only pretentious but he’s also a bit of a prick.  He treats Melisse terribly and he manipulates everyone around him.  He wanders around the city with his camera, filming random people and then editing the footage together into films that feel like third-rate Godard.  He answers every criticism with a slight smirk, the type of expression that will leave you dreaming of the moment that someone finally takes a swing at him.  Tony’s arrogant and he treats everyone like crap but, for whatever reason, everyone puts up with him because …. well, because otherwise there wouldn’t be a movie.  Of course, eventually, everyone does get sick of Tony because otherwise, the movie would never end.

A Hollywood agent (Jeff Corey) calls up Tony and offers to get him work in Hollywood.  Tony is rude to the guy on the phone.  Tony meets a big time producer who could get Tony work.  Tony’s rude to him.  Guess who doesn’t get a job?  Tony has to get money to develop his latest film from one of his professors so he’s rude to the professor.  Guess who doesn’t get any money?  Tony cheats on his loyal girlfriend.  Tony’s cameraman (played by a youngish Sam Waterston) walks out when Tony tries to film two people having sex.  By the end of the movie, no one wants anything to do with Tony.  Tony goes for a run on the beach.  He appears to be alienated and disgruntled.  We’re supposed to care, I guess.

The problem with making a movie about an arrogant artist who alienates everyone around him is that you have to make the audience believe that the artist is talented enough to justify his arrogant behavior.  For instance, if you’re going to make a movie about a painter who is prone to paranoid delusions and obsessive behavior, that painter has to be Vincent Van Gogh.  He can’t just be the the guy who paints a picture of two lion cubs and then tries to sell it at the local art festival.  You have to believe that the artist is a once-in-a-lifetime talent because otherwise, you’re just like, “Who cares?”  The problem with Cover Me, Babe is that you never really believe that Tony is worth all of the trouble.  The film certainly seems to believe that he’s worth it but ultimately, he just comes across as being a jerk who manipulates and mistreats everyone around him.

That said, from my own personal experience, a lot of film students are jerks who treat everyone them like crap.  So, in this case, I think you can make the argument that Cover Me, Babe works well as a documentary.  The fact of the matter is that not every film student is going to grow up to be the next Scorsese or Tarantino or Linklater.  Some of them are going to turn out to be like Tony, running along the beach and wondering why no one agrees with him about George Stevens being a less interesting director in the 50s than he was in the 30s.  As a docudrama about the worst people that you’re likely to meet while hanging out on campus, Cover Me, Babe is certainly effective.  Otherwise, the film is a pretentious mess that’s done in by its unlikable protagonist.  Everyone in the film says that Tony has what it takes to be an important director but, if I had to guess, I imagine he probably ended up shooting second unit footage for Henry Jaglom before eventually retiring from the industry and opening up his own vegan restaurant in Vermont.  That’s just my guess.

The poster has little to do with the film.

18 Days of Paranoia #13: They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1970 police procedural, They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, opens with a murder in San Francisco.

A prostitute has been found dead in a sleazy apartment building and, according to witnesses, she was visited, shortly before her death, by the Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau).  Rev. Sharpe is a prominent civic leader, an outspoken liberal who is a friend of the civil rights movement.  Sharpe is currently at the forefront of a campaign to pass a city referendum that will add a “mini city hall” to every neighborhood and will help to fight against the gentrification of San Francisco.  If Sharpe’s guilty, it will mean the death of the referendum.

Despite the fact that there’s a ton of evidence piling up against him and he kind of comes across as being a little bit creepy (he is, after all, played by Martin Landau), Rev. Sharpe insists that he’s innocent.  Yes, he’s been visiting prostitutes but he’s not a client.  No, of course not!  Instead, Sharpe explains that he’s simply counseling them and praying for their souls.  In fact, as far as Sharpe is concerned, this whole thing is just an attempt by the establishment to discredit his efforts to help the poor and underprivileged.

Heading up the investigation is a friend and supporter of Sharpe’s, Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier).  That may seem like a good thing for Sharpe, except for the fact that Tibbs is an honest cop and he’s not the type to let friendship stand in the way of doing a thorough investigation.  Tibbs admits that he supports Sharpe’s campaign and he wants the reverend to be innocent.  But Tibbs is all about justice.  Whether it’s teaching his son an important lesson about smoking or tracking down a potential serial killer, Virgil Tibbs is always going to do the right thing.

There are other suspects, all of whom are played by suitably sinister character actors.  Anthony Zerbe plays a criminal who lived near the prostitute.  Ed Asner plays her landlord, who may have also been her pimp.  Is Sharpe being set up by the powers that be or is Tibbs going to have to arrest a man whom he admires?

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! was the second film in which Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs.  The first time he played the role was in 1967, when he co-starred with Rod Steiger in the Oscar-winning In The Heat of the Night.  In that film, Poitier was a Philadelphia cop in the deep south who had to work with a redneck sheriff.  In They Call Me Mister Tibbs!, Virgil is now working in San Francisco and he has to work the case on his own.

They Call Me Mister Tibbs! is a far more conventional film than In The Heat of the Night.  Whereas In The Heat of the Night had a wonderful sense of place and atmosphere, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! could just as easily have taken place in Los Angeles, Phoenix, or even Philadelphia.  With the exception of some slight profanity, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! feels more like a pilot for a TV show than an actual feature film.  Perhaps the biggest problem with the film is that there’s no real surprises to be found within the film.  You’ll guess who the murderer is within the first 10 minutes of the film and you’ll probably even guess how the movie will eventually end.

On the plus side, just as he did in In The Heat of the Night, Sidney Poitier brings a lot of natural authority to the role of Virgil Tibbs.  He’s actually allowed to show a sense of humor in this film, which is something that the character (understandably) couldn’t do while he was surrounded by bigots and rednecks during his previous adventure.  Virgil gets a few family scenes, where we watch him interact with his wife and his children.  The scenes feel out of place but, at the same time, Poitier plays them well.

With Sharpe attempting to get his referendum passed and the possibility that riots could break out if Sharpe is indeed guilty of murder, there’s a slight political subtext to They Call Me Mister Tibbs!  Sharpe’s argument that he was being set up by the establishment undoubtedly carried a lot of weight in 1970.  Still, this is ultimately a shallow (if adequately entertaining) film that, for the most part, is only made memorable by Poitier’s commanding performance.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller

30 Days of Noir #24: Fourteen Hours (dir by Henry Hathaway)


As a genre, film noir has always been associated with crime: murder, brutish gangsters, seductive femme fatales, and occasionally a cynical private detective doing the right thing almost despite himself.  However, not all film noirs are about criminals.  Some are just about desperate characters who have found themselves on the fringes, living in a shadow-filled world that appears to be monstrously indifferent to all human suffering.

That’s certainly the case with the 1951 noir, 14 Hours.  The film centers around Robert Cosick (Richard Basehart, who previously played a murderer in another classic noir, He Walked By Night).  Robert isn’t a gangster.  He’s not a private detective.  He doesn’t carry a gun and he doesn’t provide any sort of hard-boiled narration.  In fact, for the majority of the film, Robert is defined by less who he is and more by what he’s doing.  Robert Cosick, having earlier checked into a room on the 15th floor of a New York hotel, has climbed out of a window and is now standing on a ledge.  Robert says that he’s going to jump.

What has driven Robert Cosik to consider such an extreme action?  The film never settles on any one reason, though it gives us several clues.  When his father (Robert Keith) and his mother (Agnes Moorehead) show up at the scene, they immediately start bickering about old family dramas.  When Robert’s ex-fiancee (Barbara Bel Geddes) begs him to step in from the ledge, he listens a bit more to her than he did to his parents but he still refuses to come in from the ledge.

But perhaps the real reason that Robert Cosick is out on that ledge can be found in the film’s shadowy visuals.  Directed in a semi-documentary fashion by Henry Hathaway and featuring harsh, black-and-white cinematography that’s credited to Joe MacDonald, Fourteen Hours emphasizes the indifference of the city.  From the menacing landscape of concrete buildings to the crowds gathering below the ledge to see if Robert lives or dies,  New York City is as much as a character in this film as Robert, his family, or the cop (played by Paul Douglas) who finds himself trying to talk Robert into reentering his hotel room.  When night falls, the city may light up but it does nothing to alleviate the shadows that seem to be wrapping themselves around Robert.  For the fourteen hours that Robert is on that ledge, he may be the center of the world but the film leaves little doubt that New York City will continue to exist in all of its glory and its horror regardless of how Robert’s drama plays out.  Whether he lives or dies, Robert appears to be destined to be forgotten.

When the film isn’t concentrating on the cops trying to talk Robert into getting back in the hotel room, it shows us the reactions of the people who see him standing out on that ledge.  (If this film were made today, everyone would be holding up their phones and uploading Robert’s plight to social media.)  Some people are moved by Robert’s struggle.  For instance, a young woman played by Grace Kelly (in her film debut) reaches a decision on whether or not to get a divorce based on what she sees happening on the ledge.  Two office workers (played by Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget) even strike up a romance as they wait to see what will happen.  Some people view Robert as being a madman.  Others see him as being a victim.  And then there’s the many others who view him as being either a minor distraction or a piece of entertainment.  For them, it’s less important why Robert’s on the ledge or even who Robert is.  What’s important to them is how the story is going to end.

It’s not a particularly happy film but it’s made watchable by Hathaway’s intelligent direction and the performances of Paul Douglas and Richard Basehart.  With its theme of instant fame and hollow indifference, it’s a film that remains as relevant today as when it was initially released.

30 Days of Noir #19: Never Trust A Gambler (dir by Ralph Murphy)


Never Trust A Gambler is a 78-minute noir gem from 1951.

It tells the story of Steve Garry (Dane Clark) and his ex-wife, Virginia (Cathy O’Donnell).  Virginia divorced Steve because he was a degenerate gambler but that doesn’t mean that she no longer has feelings for him.  Or, at the very least, that’s what Steve is hoping when, out of the blue, he shows up at her door and tells her that he needs a place to hide out.

As Steve explains it, a friend of his had been accused of murder and Steve is being pressured to testify at the man’s trial.  In a move of pure gaslighting, Steve explains that his friend is innocent but, if Steve testifies, it will lead to his friend being wrongfully convicted.  Hence, unless Virginia wants to be responsible for sending an innocent man to death row, she has to give Steve a place to hide out.  Furthermore, Steve swears to her that he’s no longer a gambler and that he’ll only need to stay with her for a few days.  Reluctantly, Virginia agrees.

Later, while Virginia is at a grocery store, she’s approached by a police sergeant named McCloy (Rhys Williams).  At first, it seems like McCloy might be following her because he’s looking for Steve but, instead, it turns out that he used to date Virginia’s former roommate, Delores.  After clumsily trying to flirt with her at the grocery store, McCloy follows Virginia home.  When McCloy tries to force himself on her, Steve comes out of the shadows and beats McCloy to death.

So now, Virginia and Steve have a dead body to contend with.  Because Steve is hiding from the cops and Virginia’s been allowing him to hide out in her house, calling the police is not an option.  Steve promises Virginia that he’ll take care of the whole thing.  Steve’s solution is to put McCloy in a car and push it over the edge of a cliff.  Given that McCloy was a drunk, it’s reasonable to think that the police might assume that McCloy was driving drunk and cashed his car.  Now, Steve and Virginia both wait to find out whether or not Steve’s plan worked….

Technically, the protagonist of this film is Sgt. Donovan (Tom Drake), the detective who investigates McCloy’s death but, for the most part, Donavon’s something of a stiff.  Instead, the film really belongs to Dane Clark and Cathy O’Donnell.  Cathy O’Donnell gives a poignant performance as a woman whose efforts to escape the past and live a normal, drama-free life are continually made unnecessarily difficult by the selfish men surrounding her.  Meanwhile, Dane Clark tears through the film like a force of nervous nature.  Clark always seems to be on the verge of jumping out of his own skin and a good deal of the film’s suspense comes from wondering when Steve is going to lose control.  At the same time, Steve Garry is a character about whom most viewers will have mixed feelings.  On the one hand, he’s sleazy and selfish but, on the other hand, he saved Virginia from someone who was even worse.  Does Steve really love Virginia or is he just taking advantage of her?  This movie will keep you guessing.

Never Trust A Gambler is a well-done and intelligent film noir and definitely one that deserves to be better known.

A Movie A Day #332: Surviving The Game (1994, directed by Ernest R. Dickerson)


Jack Mason (Ice-T) has been living on the streets of Seattle ever since the death of his wife and daughter.  When Cole (Charles S. Dutton), the friendly man at the soup kitchen, tells Mason that he can get him a job, the suicidal Mason accepts.  It turns out that a group of wealthy men are going on a hunting trip and they need a guide to lead them through the wilderness.  Mason accepts but, upon arriving, he discovers that the men (who are played by Rutger Hauer, F. Murray Abraham, William McNamara, John C. McGinley, and, of course, Gary Busey) are actually planning on playing the most dangerous game and hunting him for the weekend.

There are definitely better versions out there of Richard Connell’s famous short story.  One of the best, John Woo’s Hard Target, was released a year before Surviving the Game.  Both films share the idea of rich men hunting down the homeless for fun.  Surprisingly, it is Woo’s film that seems to take the idea, with all of its societal implications, more seriously.  Surviving the Game may present Jack Mason as being a suicidal homeless man but there is never any doubt that he is actually Ice-T, everyone’s favorite rapper and all-around badass.  But it’s precisely because Ice-T has such a recognizable persona that Surviving the Game is a guilty pleasure.  There is never any doubt that Ice-T can survive the game because Ice-T is the fucking game.  Matching Ice-T every step of the way is a rogue’s gallery of recognizable character actors, all of whom bring a different type of crazy to the proceedings.  When a movie delivers the spectacle of Ice-T being hunted by and then hunting Gary Busey and Rutger Hauer, it is easy to forgive whatever plot holes might be present in the script.

One final note: Surviving the Game was directed by Ernest R. Dickerson.  Dickerson got his start of Spike Lee’s cinematographer so it’s not surprising that Surviving the Game looks great.

 

A Movie A Day #22: Messenger of Death (1988, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


messenger_of_deathIn rural Colorado, the three wives and all the children of Orville Beecham (Charlie Dierkop) have been murdered.  Veteran journalist Garret Smith (Charles Bronson) discovers that Orville is the son of an excommunicated Mormon fundamentalist named Willis Beecham (Jeff Corey).  Willis, who lives on a heavily armed compound, practices polygamy and wants nothing to do with the outside world.  However, Willis’s brother, Zenas (John Ireland), long ago split with Willis and set up a compound of his own.  At first, Garret suspects that Orville’s family was killed by Zenas.  As Zenas and Willis go to war, Garret discovers that there’s actually a bigger conspiracy at work, one dealing with corporate greed and water rights.  (Forget it, Bronson, it’s Chinatown.)

Messenger of Death was the 2nd to last film that veteran tough guy Charles Bronson made for Cannon Films.  Especially when compared to the other films that he made for Cannon (10 To Midnight, Kinjite, Murphy’s Law, three Death Wish sequels), Messenger of Death features Bronson in a surprisingly cerebral role.  While there is violence, very little of it is actually the result of anything that Bronson does.  For once, Charles Bronson isn’t running around with a gun and blowing away bad guys. If Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey ever did start blowing away muggers in Colorado, Garret would probably be the first to condemn him in a carefully written editorial.  The only time he fights is in self-defense and even then, it’s hand-to-hand combat.  Instead, he spends most of the film doing research and asking questions.  As a result, Messenger of Death is never as much fun as the other films that Bronson made for Cannon but it’s still interesting to see him playing a regular guy.

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (dir by George Roy Hill)


Butch_sundance_poster

Should I start this post by ticking everyone off or should I start out by reviewing the 1969 best picture nominee Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid?

Let’s do the review first.  I recently watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when it aired as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.  This was actually my third time to see the film on TCM.  And, as I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the third time, I was shocked to discover how much I had forgotten about the film.

Don’t get me wrong.  I remembered that it was a western and that it starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford as real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I remembered that it opened and ended with sepia-toned sequences that suggested that Butch and Sundance represented the last gasp of the old west.  I remembered that Butch won a fight by kicking a man in the balls.  I also remembered that they robbed the same train twice and, the second time, they accidentally used too much dynamite.  I remembered that, for some reason, Butch spent a lot of time riding around on a bicycle.  I remembered that Butch and Sundance ended up getting chased by a mysterious posse.  I remembered that Sundance could not swim.  And I remembered that the film eventually ended on a tragic note in South America…

And I know what you’re saying.  You’re saying, “It sounds like you remembered the whole movie, Lisa!”

No, actually I did not.  The thing with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is that the scenes that work are so memorable that it’s easy to forget that there’s also a lot of scenes that aren’t as memorable.  These are the scenes where the film drags and you’re thankful that Paul Newman and Robert Redford were cast as Butch and Sundance, because their charisma helps you overlook a lot of scenes that are either too heavy-handed or which drag on for too long.  You’re especially thankful for Newman, who plays every scene with a twinkle in his wonderful blue eyes and who is such a lively presence that it makes up for the fact that Redford’s performance occasionally crosses over from being stoic to wooden.  It can be argued that there’s no logical reason for a western to feature an outlaw riding around on a bicycle while Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head plays on the soundtrack but Paul Newman’s so much fun to watch that you can forgive the film.

Newman and Redford both have so much chemistry that they’re always a joy to watch.  And really, that’s the whole appeal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the chance to watch two iconic actors have fun playing opposite each other.  Even though Katharine Ross appears as their shared romantic interest, the film’s love story is ultimately between Butch and Sundance (and, by extension, Newman and Redford).  You can find countless reviews that will give all the credit for the film’s appeal to William Goldman’s screenplay.  (You can also find countless self-satisfied essays by William Goldman where he does the exact same thing.)  But, honestly, the film’s screenplay is nothing special.  This film works because of good, old-fashioned star power.

Now, for the part that’ll probably tick everyone off (heh heh), I think that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is actually a pretty good pick for a future remake.  All you have to do is pick the right actors for Butch and Sundance.  I’m thinking Chris Pratt as Butch and Chris Evans as Sundance…

Oh, c’mon!  It’ll be great!