Nighthawks (1981, directed by Bruce Malmuth)


DaSilva (Sylvester Stallone) and Fox (Billy Dee Williams) are two tough New York cops who just want to be left alone so that they can arrest muggers and purse snatchers.  However, because they both have a background in the military, they are assigned to work with an international anti-terrorism task force that is being headed up by Detective Inspector Peter Hartman (Nigel Davenport).  Rumor has it that the notorious terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) is coming to New York and Hartman tells DaSilva and Fox that they must be prepared to do whatever is necessary to take Wulgar down, even if it means taking a shot while he is hiding behind a hostage.  DaSilva says he’s not sure that he could shoot an innocent person, even if it meant stopping Wulfgar from escaping.

Wulfgar has no such moral qualms.  Wulfgar is a terrorist-for-hire who claims to be fighting for the people but whose main interest is remaining employable.  Unfortunately, Wulfgar has become so ruthless and so cavalier about killing civilians (including children) that most terrorist groups have started to refuse to hire him.  He brings too much bad publicity to his employers.  Wulfgar has come to New York to lead a bombing campaign, with the hope of once again making himself employable.  Wulfgar’s partner in all of this is the equally ruthless Shakka Kapoor (Persis Khambatta).

Nighthawks was one of the films that Stallone made after he found stardom as Rocky but before he redefined his career by playing John Rambo.  Stallone actually gives a surprisingly good performance as DaSilva.  DaSilva may be another tough cop who plays by his own rules but the script still gives the character some unexpected shadings and Stallone plays him as being more cerebral than you might expect.  It’s interesting to see Stallone play a character who is worried about using excessive force to do his job and, to the film’s credit, it actually takes DaSilva’s conflicted feelings seriously.  Billy Dee Williams, unfortunately, is not given as much to do as Stallone and his character is far more one-note than Stallone’s.  He’s the loyal partner and, with his natural charisma, Williams deserved a role with more depth.  Also appearing in small roles are Joe Spinell (as Stallone’s boss), Lindsay Wagner (as Stallone’s ex-wife), and the legendary pornographic actor Jamie Gillis (as Wagner’s boss).

Not surprisingly, the film is stolen by Rutger Hauer, who gives a performance that, in many ways, anticipates his more acclaimed work in Blade Runner.  As played by Hauer, Wulfgar is a charismatic sociopath who knows exactly the right thing to say but who, because of his own arrogance, is still vulnerable to allowing his emotions to get the better of him.  He and Stallone both play-off each other well and their face-to-face confrontations are intense.  It probably helped that Hauer and Stallone did not personally get along during the filming.  (Both, however, were very complimentary towards each other in the years that followed Nighthawks, with Hauer especially saying that there was nothing personal about their on-set arguments.)

Nighthawks is hardly an in-depth look at the realities of international terrorism but it has a handful of exciting action scenes and two excellent performances from Stallone and Hauer.  It’s currently on Netflix and worth watching.

6 Trailers For World UFO Day


With today being World UFO Day, it seems like a good time for a special edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!  The 6 trailers below all bring the promise of aliens to the grindhouse!

  1. Starcrash (1978)

For the record, I fully realize and understand that I have shared this trailer like a thousand times on this site.  I make no apologies!  I love this trailer and, even more importantly, I love this film!  It’s perhaps the greatest Italian Star Wars rip-off of all time.  Directed by Luigi Cozzi and starring Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, Joe Spinell, Marjoe Gortner, and Christopher Plummer, Starcrash is a movie everyone must see!  I was even Stella Starr for Halloween in 2014.  Unfortunately, no one knew who I was (apparently, not everyone loves Italian exploitation films that I do) but I still got a lot of candy.

2. The Deadly Spawn (1983)

When a meteor crashes to Earth, it unleashes … well, watch the trailer.  I’ve been meaning to review this movie for a while but somehow, I keep getting distracted by Lifetime.  The Deadly Spawn is a lot of fun.  It’s good nature more than makes up for its low budget.

3. Starship Invasions (1977)

This is the trailer for Starship Invasions, which Christopher Lee regularly described as being the worst film he ever made.

4. Contamination (1980)

This one was directed by Luigi Cozzi, who also directed Starcrash.  It’s also known as Alien ContaminationHere’s my review!

5. Alien 2: On Earth (1980)

Oh my God!  A previously unknown Alien sequel!?  Not quite.  This Italian sci-fi film may have been released as Alien 2 but it actually had nothing to do with the original Alien.  That said, Alien 2 is still considerably better than Alien Covenant.

6. I Come In Peace (1990)

“…and you go in pieces!”

Hah!  You tell him!  I’ve never seen this film but I love that line.

A Movie A Day #165: Big Wednesday (1978, directed by John Milius)


If there is a male bonding hall of fame, Big Wednesday has to be front and center.

This episodic movie follows three legendary surfers over twelve years of change and turmoil.  Jack Barlowe (William Katt) is the straight arrow who keeps the peace.  Leroy “The Masochist” Smith (Gary Busey) is the wild man.  Matt Johnson (Jan-Michael Vincent) is the best surfer of them all but he resents both his fame and the expectation that he should be some sort of role model for the younger kids on the beach.  From 1962 until 1974, the three of them learn about love and responsibility while dealing with cultural turmoil (including, of course, the Vietnam War) and waiting for that one legendary wave.

After writing the screenplays for Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directing The Wind and The Lion and Dillinger, John Milius finally got to make his dream project.  Big Wednesday was based on Milius’s own youth as a California surfer and he has said that all three of the main characters were based on different aspects of his own personality.  Expectations for Big Wednesday were so high that Milius’s friends, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, exchanged percentages points for Star Wars and Close Encounters of  The Third Kind for a point of Big Wednesday.  The deal turned out to be worth millions to Milius but nothing to Lucas and Spielberg because Big Wednesday was a notorious box office flop.  Warner Bros. sold the film as a raunchy comedy, leaving audiences surprised to discover that Big Wednesday was actually, in Milius’s words, a “coming-of-age story with Arthurian overtones.”

I can understand why Big Wednesday may not be for everyone but it is one of my favorite movies.  It is one of the ultimate guy films.  Some of the dialogue and the narration may be overwrought but so are most guys, especially when they’re the same age as the surfers in Big Wednesday.  We all like to imagine that we are heroes in some sort of epic adventure.  The surfing footage is amazing but it is not necessary to be a surfer to relate to the film’s coming-of-age story or its celebration of the enduring bonds of friendship.  Katt, Vincent, and Busey all give great performances.  Considering their later careers, it is good that Big Wednesday is around to remind us of what Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent were capable of at their best, before their promising careers were derailed by drugs and mental illness.  Be sure to also keep an eye out for infamous 70s character actor Joe Spinell as an army psychiatrist, a pre-Nightmare on Elm Street Robert Englund, playing a fellow surfer and providing the film’s narration, and Barbara Hale, playing the patient mother of her real-life son, William Katt.

One final note: At a time when the shameful stereotype of the psycho Vietnam vet was becoming popular and unfairly tarnishing the reputation of real-life vets, Big Wednesday was unique for featuring a character who not only joins the Army but who appears to return as a better person as a result.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Monsignor (dir by Frank Perry)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s taking her longer than it took Saint Malachy to transcribe The Prophecy of the Popes!  She recorded the 1982 film, Monsignor, off of Retroplex on March 8th!)

Maybe it’s because I’m a fourth Italian and I was raised Catholic but Monsignor amused the Hell out of me.

See, Monsignor is a big, sprawling epic about the Church and the Mafia.  I don’t know much about the production of this film but, having watched it, I’m going to guess that it was made by people who were neither Catholic nor Italian.  This is one of those films that is so full of clichés and inaccuracies and yet so self-important that it becomes oddly fascinating to watch.

It tells the story of Father John Flaherty (Christopher Reeve, an Episcopalian who gives a performance so wooden that one worries about getting splinters just from watching it).  When we first meet Father Flaherty, he’s just taken his orders.  He’s a good Irish kid from Brooklyn.  The neighborhood’s proud of him, because he has volunteered to serve as a chaplain in the army.  (The film opens during World War II.)  The neighborhood is even prouder when he performs a Mafia wedding.  Don Appolini (Jason Miller), who may be a mobster but who still loves the Church, is especially impressed.  He expects big things from Father Flaherty.

(The father of the bride, incidentally, is played by Joe Spinell, who played Willy Chicci in Godfathers One and Two and who achieved a certain infamy when he starred in Maniac.)

Father Flaherty goes to war and discovers that it’s not easy to be a man of God in a war zone.  Everywhere around him, soldiers are either dying or losing their faith.  (Perhaps it would help if Father Flaherty knew how to properly conduct a Requiem Mass but the movie screws that up, with Flaherty saying, “”Requiescat in pace” when he clearly should have said, “Requiescant in pace.”)   After trying, in vain, to comfort a mortally wounded man, Flaherty snaps, picks up a machine gun, and starts blowing away Germans.

Having broken the Thou Shalt Not Kill Commandment and indulged in one of the seven deadly sins, Father Flaherty apparently decides to commit every other sin as well.  Or, at least, it seems like that’s his plan.  The thing is, Christopher Reeve’s performance is bland that it’s difficult to guess what could possibly be going on inside of Flaherty’s head.  Is he disillusioned with the church or does he still have faith?  When he says that he feels guilty over his transgressions, is he being sincere or is he lying?  It’s impossible to tell because, when it comes to Father Flaherty, there’s no there there.  He’s literally an empty vessel.

That, of course, doesn’t stop him from becoming a powerful man in the Church.  Through his Mafia connections, he makes a fortune on the black market and launders money for the church.  He also has sex with a cynical, nymphomaniac postulant nun, who is something of a stock figure in films like this.  In this case, the role is played by Genevieve Bujold.  Despite the stereotypical nature of her character, Bujold comes the closest of anyone in the cast to giving a nuanced performance but her character abruptly vanishes from the film.  One can literally hear the producers in the background saying, “Okay, we’ve indulged in the sexy nun thing.  Send her home now.”

Towards the end of the film, there’s a flash forward that is so abrupt that I didn’t even realize it had happened until I noticed that Christopher Reeve and Jason Miller now had a little gray in their hair.  The flash forward doesn’t really accomplish much.  Father Flaherty has lost a lot of the Mafia’s family and the Mafia’s not happy about it.  It’s kinda like the Vatican subplot in The Godfather Part III, just with less interesting actors.

Anyway, Monsignor obviously thinks that it has something to say about both the Church and the Mafia but it’s actually remarkably empty-headed.  Strangely enough, for an epic film that cost 10 million dollars to make (that’s in 1982 money), the whole film looks remarkably cheap.  If a community theater decided to put on a production of Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, the end result would probably end up looking a lot like Monsignor.

And yet, I really can’t hate Monsignor.  It’s so bad that, as I said earlier, it’s also oddly fascinating.  You watch and you ask yourself, How many details can one film about Catholicism get wrong?  How many Italian stereotypes can be forced into a movie with a Mafia subplot?  Now, I should point out that, at no point, does Don Appolini say, “Mama mia!” but, if he had, I wouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s just that type of film.

Anyway, Monsignor is so sordid and stupid that it becomes entertaining for all the wrong reasons.  If you’re into that, you’ll enjoy Monsignor.

20 Horror Icons Who Were Never Nominated For An Oscar


Though they’ve given some of the best, iconic, and award-worthy performances in horror history, the actors and actresses below have never been nominated for an Oscar.

Scarlet Diva

  1. Asia Argento

Perhaps because of charges of nepotism, people are quick to overlook just how good Asia Argento was in those films she made with Dario Argento.  Her work in Trauma especially deserves to be reevaluated.  Outside of her work with Dario, Asia gave great, self-directed performances in Scarlet Diva and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.

2. Jamie Lee Curtis

“Prom Night!  Everything is all right!”  Did you know that Jamie Lee Curtis received a Genie Nomination for her performance in Prom Night?  That could be because, in 1980, there weren’t that many movies being produced in Canada but still, Jamie was pretty good in that film.  And, of course, there’s a little film called Halloween

3. Peter Cushing

The beloved Hammer horror veteran did wonderful work as both Frankenstein and Van Helsing.  Personally, I love his odd cameo in Shock Waves.

4. Robert Englund

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…

5. Lance Henriksen

One of the great character actors, Lance Henriksen gave one of the best vampire performances of all time in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark.

David Hess, R.I.P.

6. David Hess

In just two films — Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left and Ruggero Deodato’s The House On The Edge of the Park — Hess defined screen evil.  If nothing else, he deserved an Oscar for composing The Road Leads To Nowhere.

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7. Boris Karloff

As our own Gary Loggins will tell you, it’s a crime that Boris Karloff never received an Oscar nomination.  He may be best remembered for Frankenstein but, for me, Karloff’s best performance was in Targets.

8. Camille Keaton

Yes, Camille Keaton did deserve a Best Actress nomination for I Spit On Your Grave.

Kinski and Butterfly

9. Klaus Kinski

The notorious and talented Klaus Kinski was never nominated for an Oscar.  Perhaps the Academy was scared of what he would do if he won.  But, that said, Kinski gave some of the best performances of all time, in films for everyone from Jess Franco to Werner Herzog.

Christopher Lee Is Dracula

10. Christopher Lee

That the amazing Christopher Lee was never nominated is a shock.  Though he will always be Dracula, Lee gave wonderful performances in films of all genres.  Lee always cited the little-seen Jinnah as being his best performance.

 

11. Bela Lugosi

The original Dracula, Lugosi never escaped typecasting.  Believe it or not, one of his finest performances was in one of the worst (if most enjoyable) films of all time, Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.

12. Catriona MacColl

This English actress gave three excellent performances in each chapter of Lucio Fulci’s Beyond Trilogy, with her performance in The House By The Cemetery elevating the entire film.

13. Daria Nicolodi

This Italian actress served as a muse to two of the best directors around, Dario Argento and Mario Bava.  Her award-worthy performances include Deep Red and, especially, Shock.

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14. Bill Paxton

This great Texas actor gave award-worthy performances in everything from Near Dark to Aliens to Frailty.  RIP.

15. Donald Pleasence 

Dr. Loomis!  As good as he was in Halloween, Pleasence also gave excellent performances in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac and a nightmarish Australian film called Wake in Fright.

Roger Corman and Vincent Price

16. Vincent Price

The great Vincent Price never seems to get the respect that he deserves.  He may have overacted at times but nobody went overboard with as much style as Vincent Price.  His most award-worthy performance?  The Witchfinder General.

17. Giovanni Lombardo Radice

The greatest of all the Italian horror stars, Radice is still active, gracious, and beloved by his many fans.  Quentin Tarantino is a self-described fan so it’s time for Tarantino to write him a great role.

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18. Michael Rooker

To many people, this great character actor will always be Henry.

19. Joe Spinell

This character actor will always be remembered for playing the lead role in the original Maniac but he also appeared in some of the most acclaimed films of all time.  Over the course of a relatively short career, Spinell appeared in everything from The Godfather to Taxi Driver to Rocky to Starcrash.  He was the American Klaus Kinski,

20. Barbara Steele

Barbara Steele has worked with everyone from Mario Bava to Jonathan Demme to David Cronenberg to Federico Fellini.  Among her many excellent performances, her work in Black Sunday and Caged Heat stands out as particularly memorable.

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Soda Pop Cops: THE SEVEN-UPS (20th Century Fox 1973)


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Theater screens of the 70’s were awash in blue as the “tough guy cop” film put a chokehold on Hollywood. DIRTY HARRY Callahan took on punks in a series of action flicks, SERPICO took down corruption in New York, and L.A. detective Joseph Wambaugh’s novels were adapted into big (and small) screen features.  Producer Philip D’Antoni helped usher in this modern take on film noir with 1968’s BULLITT starring Steve McQueen, followed by the Oscar-winning THE FRENCH CONNECTION , with Gene Hackman as brutal cop Popeye Doyle.

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D’Antoni decided to direct his next effort, 1973’s THE SEVEN-UPS. CONNECTION costar Roy Scheider gets his first top-billed role as Buddy Manucci, head of an elite “dirty tricks” squad that takes down perps whose felonies will land them seven years and up in jail (hence the title; it has nothing to do with the lemon-lime soda!). Manucci’s childhood pal Vito Lucia (Tony LoBianco) is…

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6 Trailers For Law Day


PCAS

Believe it or not, today is not just Loyalty Day in America!  It’s also Law Day!  President Dwight D. Eisenhower first proclaimed May 1st to be Law Day in 1958 and apparently, it’s been celebrated every year since.  On Law Day, Americans are meant to reflect on the role of law in the foundation of the nation and also consider its importance to the social order.

I have to admit that, as a part of my day job, I interact with attorneys on a daily basis and I have never once heard any of them mention Law Day.  But, if it’s on Wikipedia, it has to be true!

In honor of Law Day, I thought I would send out the Trailer Kitties and have them come back with 6 trailer for a new edition of Lisa Marie’s Favorite Grindhouse and Exploitation Film Trailers!

(I know it’s been a while since I did one of these but, for a while, my favorite grindhouse trailers was one of the mainstays of this site.  In these posts, with the help of the Trailer Kitties, I highlight 6 of my favorite old school exploitation film trailers.)

Here are 6 trailers for Law Day!

(Some of these trailers are potentially NSFW so use your own best judgment before watching.)

1) Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975)

In Welcome Home, Brother Charles, Charles is wrongly convicted and sent to prison.  When he’s released, he uses his penis to strangle his enemies.  Yes, he does.  This, incidentally, was the first film that I ever reviewed for this site.

2) Seven Hours to Judgment (1988)

It’s not easy being a judge, especially when you’re one of those judges who lets criminals out on a technicality.  I assume that’s what Seven Hours To Judgment is about.

3) Rolling Vengeance (1987)

When the law doesn’t do its job, citizens and trucks have no choice but to dispense their own brand of justice.

4) Night of the Blood Monster (a.k.a. The Bloody Judge) (1970)

This one features Christopher Lee as an evil judge and, perhaps not surprisingly, it was directed by Jess Franco.

5) Vigilante (1983)

“The police are powerless.  The law is corrupt…”  Joe Spinell is in this trailer.

6) Gordon’s War (1973)

Things may look tough out there!  But don’t worry — Gordon has a plan!

What do you think, Trailer Kitty?

Lawyer Cat

Shattered Politics #39: Taxi Driver (dir by Martin Scorsese)


Taxi_Driver_poster

We’ve never had a President named Charles.  We’ve had several Presidents named John and a quite a few named James.  We’ve even had three named George.  But we’ve never had a Charles.  We’ve come close.  Charles Evans Hughes nearly beat evil old Woodrow Wilson in 1916.  Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was nominated two times in a row by the Federalists but lost to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison respectively.  We’ve had three Vice Presidents names Charles — Fairbanks, Dawes, and Curtis — but never a President.

And, if we ever do elect a President named Charles, he’s probably go by either Charlie or Chuck.  The United States has always liked to think of itself as being a country that has no official royal family and, as a name, Charles probably sounds far to aristocratic for most voters.

That’s why I’m sure that, once U.S. Sen. Charles Palatine won the Democratic presidential nomination back in 1976, he probably insisted that people start calling him Chuck.  Of course, Sen. Palatine probably had no idea how lucky he was to win that nomination.  If not for a few secret service agents, Sen. Palatine could very well have fallen victim to a psychotic taxi driver named Travis Bickle.

Sen. Palatine’s presidential campaign is a major subplot of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece of paranoia, Taxi Driver.  As played by an actor named Leonard Harris, Sen. Palatine appears to be the epitome of a politician.  He may smile at the right moment but his eyes are always shifty.  Even his campaign slogan (“We Are The people!”) is vapid in an all too plausible way.  (How different is “We Are the People” from “We Are The People We’ve Been Waiting For?”)  For the most part, Palatine remains a remote figure, giving speeches and appearing in television commercials.  The only time that we get to know Palatine as a person is when he gets in a taxi being driven by Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro).

Travis recognizes him immediately and tells him that he tells everyone who gets in the cab that “they gotta vote for you.”  Palatine smirks a little as he asks Travis what he thinks the most important issue of the election is.  Travis goes on a bit about how someone needs to destroy all of the scum and filthy lowlifes who seem to populate Travis’s section of New York.  As Travis rambles, Palatine’s smile disappears and it becomes obvious that he’s realized that he is essentially being driven by a psycho.  Oh shit, Palatine is probably thinking, this guy is telling people that they gotta vote for me?  However, Palatine quickly regains his composure and assures Travis that the wisest people that he’s ever met have been taxi drivers.

Of course, what Palatine doesn’t realize is that Travis only knows about the campaign because he happens to be obsessed with a Palatine campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd).  And Betsy even goes out with Travis a few times.  But then Travis, who spends the majority of the film showing how little skill he has when it comes to understanding and relating to other people, takes Betsy to an adult film.

With Betsy refusing to take his calls, Travis’s attention shifts to Iris (Jodie Foster), a teenage prostitute.  Obviously seeing himself as being a knight in shining armor, Travis tells Iris that she has to go back home to her parents.  As Travis talks, it becomes apparent that he’s simply repeating talking points that he’s heard on TV.  (If Taxi Driver was made today, Travis would be one of those people constantly sharing “inspirational” Facebook posts.)  Iris laughs at Travis and goes back to her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel).

And, of course, Travis goes even crazier than before.

38 years after it was first released, Taxi Driver remains a disturbing and powerful film.  However, what makes it effective is that, in many ways, it’s perhaps the darkest comedy ever made.  Throughout the entire film, Travis essentially tells everyone that he meets that he’s disturbed and potentially dangerous and, throughout the entire film, everyone seems to be determined to ignore all of the signs.

Critics always talks about the scene where Travis points a gun at his mirror and asks, “You talkin’ to me?”  And that’s a great scene.  It deserves to be famous, just as De Niro deserves all of the praise that he’s gotten for his iconic performance in Taxi Driver.

However, for me, there are two other scenes that are just as brilliant.  The first is where Travis attempts to get some advice from an older cabbie named Wizard (Peter Boyle).  Travis says he’s been having a lot bad thoughts.  Wizard shrugs and says that everyone has those.  What makes this scene particularly memorable are the lengths that Wizard goes to in order to avoid acknowledging that Travis is obviously disturbed.

And then, there’s the scene where Travis buys a gun from Easy Andy (Steven Prince).  Andy is such a salesman and is so nonchalant about all of his weaponry that, for a few brief minutes, Steven Prince actually manages to steal the spotlight from Robert De Niro.

Whenever one thinks about Taxi Driver, one automatically pictures Robert De Niro.  That’s why it’s all the more interesting that De Niro was not the first choice for Travis.  When Taxi Driver was in pre-production and a pre-Jaws Steven Spielberg (of all people) was thinking about directing it, Jeff Bridges as briefly attached to the role.  And while it’s always tempting to think about what a Spielberg/Bridges version of Taxi Driver would look like, I think we’re all right to be happy that the actual film was directed by Scorsese and starred De Niro.  They truly made Taxi Driver into one of the most memorable films ever made.

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Shattered Politics #36: The Godfather, Part II (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_part_ii

Believe it or not, The Trial of Billy Jack was not the only lengthy sequel to be released in 1974.  Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II was released as well and it went on to become the first sequel to win an Oscar for best picture.  (It was also the first, and so far, only sequel to a best picture winner to also win best picture.)  Among the films that The Godfather, Part II beat: Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation, and The Towering Inferno.  1974 was a good year.

Whenever I think about The Godfather, Part II, I find myself wondering what the film would have been like if Richard Castellano hadn’t demanded too much money and had actually returned in the role of Clemenza, as was originally intended.  In the first Godfather, Clemenza and Tessio (Abe Vigoda) were Don Corleone’s two lieutenants.  Tessio was the one who betrayed Michael and was killed as a result.  Meanwhile, Clemenza was the one who taught Michael how to fire a gun and who got to say, “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”

Though Castellano did not return to the role, Clemenza is present in The Godfather, Part II.  The Godfather, Part II tells two separate stories: during one half of the film, young Vito Corleone comes to America, grows up to be Robert De Niro and then eventually becomes the Godfather.  In the other half of the film, Vito’s successor, Michael (Al Pacino), tries to keep the family strong in the 1950s and ultimately either loses, alienates, or kills everyone that he loves.

During Vito’s half of the film, we learn how Vito first met Clemenza (played by Bruno Kirby) and Tessio (John Aprea).  However, during Michael’s half of the story, Clemenza is nowhere to be seen.  Instead, we’re told that Clemenza died off-screen and his successor is Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo).  All of the characters talk about Frankie as if he’s an old friend but, as a matter of fact, Frankie was nowhere to be seen during the first film.  Nor is he present in Vito’s flashbacks.  This is because originally, Frankie was going to be Clemenza.  But Richard Castellano demanded too much money and, as a result, he was written out of the script.

And really, it doesn’t matter.  Gazzo does fine as Frankie and it’s a great film.  But, once you know that Frankie was originally meant to be Clemenza, it’s impossible to watch The Godfather Part II without thinking about how perfectly it would have worked out.

If Clemenza had been around for Michael’s scenes, he would have provided a direct link between Vito’s story and Michael’s story.  When Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) betrayed Michael and went into protective custody, it would have reminded us of how much things had changed for the Corleones (and, by extension, America itself).  When Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) talked Clemenza (as opposed to Frankie) into committing suicide, it truly would have shown that the old, “honorable” Mafia no longer existed.  It’s also interesting to note that, before Tessio was taken away and killed, the last person he talked to was Tom Hagen.  If Castellano had returned, it once again would have fallen to Tom to let another one of his adopted father’s friends know that it was time to go.

Famously, the Godfather, Part II ends with a flashback to the day after Pearl Harbor.   We watch as a young and idealistic Michael tells his family that he’s joined the army.  With the exception of Michael and Tom Hagen, every character seen in the flashback has been killed over the course of the previous two films.  We see Sonny (James Caan), Carlo (Gianni Russo), Fredo (John Cazale), and even Tessio (Abe Vigoda).  Not present: Clemenza.  (Vito doesn’t appear in the flashback either but everyone’s talking about him so he might as well be there.  Poor Clemenza doesn’t even get mentioned.)

If only Richard Castellano had been willing to return.

Clemenza_and_Vito

Clemenza and Vito

 

But he didn’t and you know what?  You really only miss him if you know that he was originally meant to be in the film.  With or without Richard Castellano, The Godfather, Part II is a great film, probably one of the greatest of all time.  When it comes to reviewing The Godfather, Part II, the only real question is whether it’s better than the first Godfather.

Which Godfather you prefer really depends on what you’re looking for from a movie.  Even with that door getting closed in Kay’s face, the first Godfather was and is a crowd pleaser.  In the first Godfather, the Corleones may have been bad but everyone else was worse.  You couldn’t help but cheer them on.

The Godfather Part II is far different.  In the “modern” scenes, we discover that the playful and idealistic Michael of part one is gone.  Micheal is now cold and ruthless, a man who willingly orders a hit on his older brother and who has no trouble threatening Tom Hagen.  If Michael spent the first film surrounded by family, he spends the second film talking to professional killers, like Al Neri (Richard Bright) and Rocco Lampone (Tom Rosqui).  Whereas the first film ended with someone else closing the door on Kay, the second film features Michael doing it himself.  By the end of the film, Michael Corleone is alone in his compound, a tyrant isolated in his castle.

Michael’s story provides a sharp contrast to Vito’s story.  Vito’s half of the film is vibrant and colorful and fun in a way that Michael’s half is not and could never be.  But every time that you’re tempted to cheer a bit too easily for Vito, the film moves forward in time and it reminds you of what the future holds for the Corleones.

So, which of the first two Godfathers do I prefer?  I love them both.  If I need to be entertained, I’ll watch The Godfather.  If I want to watch a movie that will truly make me think and make me question all of my beliefs about morality, I’ll watch Part Two.

Finally, I can’t end this review without talking about G.D. Spradlin, the actor who plays the role of U.S. Sen. Pat Geary.  The Godfather Part II is full of great acting.  De Niro won an Oscar.  Pacino, Gazzo, Lee Strasberg, and Talia Shire were all nominated.  Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, and John Cazale all deserved nominations.  Even Joe Spinell shows up and brilliantly delivers the line, “Yeah, we had lots of buffers.”  But, with each viewing of Godfather, Part II, I find myself more and more impressed with G.D. Spradlin.

Sen. Pat Geary doesn’t have a lot of time on-screen.  He attends a birthday party at the Corleone Family compound, where he praises Michael in public and then condescendingly insults him in private.  Later, he shows up in Cuba, where he watches a sex show with obvious interest.  And, when Michael is called before a Senate committee, Geary gives a speech defending the honor of all Italian-Americans.

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

G.D. Spradlin as Sen. Pat Geary

But the scene that we all remember is the one where Tom Hagen meets Sen. Geary in a brothel.  As Geary talks about how he passed out earlier, the camera briefly catches the sight of a dead prostitute lying on the bed behind him.  What’s especially disturbing about this scene is that neither Hagen nor Geary seem to acknowledge her presence.  She’s been reduced to a prop in the Corleone Family’s scheme to blackmail Sen. Geary.  His voice shaken, Geary says that he doesn’t know what happened and we see the weakness and the cowardice behind his almost all-American facade.

It’s a disturbing scene that’s well-acted by both Duvall and Spradlin.  Of course, what is obvious (even if it’s never explicitly stated) is that Sen. Geary has been set up and that nameless prostitute was killed by the Corleones.  It’s a scene that makes us reconsider everything that we previously believed about the heroes of the Godfather.

For forcing us to reconsider and shaking us out of our complacency, The Godfather, Part II is a great film.

(Yes, it’s even better than The Trial of Billy Jack.)

 

Shattered Politics #31: The Godfather (dir by Francis Ford Coppola)


Godfather_ver1

“I got something for your mother and Sonny and a tie for Freddy and Tom Hagen got the Reynolds Pen…” — Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in The Godfather (1972)

It probably seems strange that when talking about The Godfather, a film that it is generally acknowledged as being one of the best and most influential of all time, I would start with an innocuous quote about getting Tom Hagen a pen.

(And it better have been a hell of a pen because, judging from the scene where Sollozzo stops him in the street, it looked like Tom was going all out as far as gifts were concerned…)

After all, The Godfather is a film that is full of memorable quotes.  “Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli.”  “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  “It’s strictly business.”  “I believe in America….”  “That’s my family, Kay.  That’s not me.”

But I went with the quote about the Reynolds pen because, quite frankly, I find an excuse to repeat it every Christmas.  Every holiday season, whenever I hear friends or family talking about presents, I remind them that Tom Hagen is getting the Reynolds pen.  Doubt me?  Check out these tweets from the past!

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/411891527837687810  ]

[tweet https://twitter.com/LisaMarieBowman/status/280387983444697088 ]

That’s how much I love The Godfather.  I love it so much that I even find myself quoting the lines that don’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things.  I love the film so much that I once even wrote an entire post about who could have been cast in The Godfather if, for whatever reason, Brando, Pacino, Duvall, et al. had been unavailable.  And I know that I’m not alone in that love.

But all that love also makes The Godfather a difficult film to review.  What do you say about a film that everyone already knows is great?

Do you praise it by saying that Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Diane Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Cazale, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Alex Rocco, and Talia Shire all gave excellent performances?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Do you talk about how well director Francis Ford Coppola told this operatic, sprawling story of crime, family, and politics?  You can do that but everyone already knows that.

Maybe you can talk about how beautiful Gordon Willis’s dark and shadowy cinematography looks, regardless of whether you’re seeing it in a theater or on TV.  Because it certainly does but everyone knows that.

Maybe you can mention the haunting beauty of Nina Rota’s score but again…

Well, you get the idea.

Now, if you somehow have never seen the film before, allow me to try to tell you what happens in The Godfather.  I say try because The Godfather is a true epic.  Because it’s also an intimate family drama and features such a dominating lead performance from Al Pacino, it’s sometimes to easy to forget just how much is actually going on in The Godfather.

The Godfather tells the story of the Corleone Family.  Patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) has done very well for himself in America, making himself into a rich and influential man.  Of course, Vito is also known as both Don Corleone and the Godfather and he’s made his fortune through less-than-legal means.  He may be rich and he may be influential but when his daughter gets married, the FBI shows up outside the reception and takes pictures of all the cars in the parking lot.  Vito Corleone knows judges and congressmen but none of them are willing to be seen in public with him.  Vito is the establishment that nobody wants to acknowledge and sometimes, this very powerful man wonders if there will ever be a “Governor Corleone” or a “Senator Corleone.”

Vito is the proud father of three children and the adopted father of one more.  His oldest son, and probable successor, is Sonny (James Caan).  Sonny, however, has a temper and absolutely no impulse control.  While his wife is bragging about him to the other women at the wedding, Sonny is upstairs screwing a bridesmaid.  When the enemies of the Corleone Family declare war, Sonny declares war back and forgets the first rule of organized crime: “It’s not personal.  It’s strictly business.”

After Sonny, there’s Fredo (John Cazale).  Poor, pathetic Fredo.  In many ways, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Fredo.  He’s the one who ends up getting exiled to Vegas, where he lives under the protection of the crude Moe Greene (Alex Rocco).  One of the film’s best moments is when a bejeweled Fredo shows up at a Vegas hotel with an entourage of prostitutes and other hangers-on.  In these scenes, Fred is trying so hard but when you take one look at his shifty eyes, it’s obvious that he’s still the same guy who we first saw stumbling around drunk at his sister’s wedding.

(And, of course, it’s impossible to watch Fredo in this film without thinking about both what will happen to the character in the Godfather, Part II and how John Cazale, who brought the character to such vibrant life, would die just 6 years later.)

As a female, daughter Connie (Talia Shire) is — for the first film, at least — excluded from the family business.  Instead, she marries Sonny’s friend Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo).  And, to put it gently, it’s not a match made in heaven.

And finally, there’s Michael (Al Pacino).  Michael is the son who, at the start of the film, declares that he wants nothing to do with the family business.  He’s the one who wants to break with family tradition by marrying Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), who is most definitely not Italian.  He’s the one who was decorated in World War II and who comes to his sister’s wedding still dressed in his uniform.  (In the second Godfather film, we learn that Vito thought Michael was foolish to join the army, which makes it all the more clear that, by wearing the uniform to the wedding, Michael is attempting to declare his own identity outside of the family.)  To paraphrase the third Godfather film, Michael is the one who says he wants to get out but who keeps getting dragged back in.

And finally, the adopted son is Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).  Tom is the Don’s lawyer and one reason why Tom is one of my favorite characters is because, behind his usual stone-faced facade, Tom is actually very snarky.  He just hides it well.

Early on, we get a hint that Tom is more amused than he lets on when he has dinner with the crude Jack Woltz (John Marley), a film producer who doesn’t want to use Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) in a movie  When Woltz shouts insults at him, Tom calmly finishes his dinner and thanks him for a lovely evening.  And he does it with just the hint of a little smirk and you can practically see him thinking, “Somebody’s going to wake up with a horse tomorrow….”

However, my favorite Tom Hagen moment comes when Kay, who is searching for Michael, drops by the family compound.  Tom greets her at the gate.  When Kay spots a car that’s riddled with bullet holes, she asks what happened.  Tom smiles and says, “Oh, that was an accident.  But luckily no one was hurt!”  Duvall delivers the line with just the right attitude of “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”  How can you not kind of love Tom after that?

And, of course, the film is full of other memorable characters, all of whom are scheming and plotting.  There’s Clemenza (Richard S. Catellano) and Tessio (Abe Vigoda), the two Corleone lieutenants who may or may not be plotting to betray the Don.  There’s fearsome Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), who spends an eternity practicing what he wants to say at Connie’s wedding and yet still manages to screw it up.  And, of course, there’s Sollozzo (Al Lettieri, playing a role originally offered to Franco Nero), the drug dealer who reacts angrily to Vito’s refusal to help him out.  Meanwhile, Capt. McCluskey (Sterling Hayden) is busy beating up young punks and Al Neri (Richard Bright) is gunning people down in front of the courthouse.  And, of course, there’s poor, innocent, ill-fated Appollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli)…

The Godfather is a great Italian-American epic, one that works as both a gangster film and a family drama.  Perhaps the genius of the Godfather trilogy is that the Corleone family serves as an ink blot in a cinematic rorschach test.  Audiences can look at them and see whatever they want.  If you want them and their crimes to serve as a metaphor for capitalism, you need only listen to Tom and Michael repeatedly state that it’s only business.  If you want to see them as heroic businessmen, just consider that their enemies essentially want to regulate the Corleones out of existence.  If you want the Corleones to serve as symbols of the patriarchy, you need only watch as the door to Michael’s office is shut in Kay’s face.  If you want to see the Corleones as heroes, you need only consider that they — and they alone — seem to operate with any sort of honorable criminal code.  (This, of course, would change over the course of the two sequels.)

And, if you’re trying to fit a review of The Godfather into a series about political films, you only have to consider that Vito is regularly spoken of as being a man who carries politicians around in his pocket.  We may not see any elected officials in the first Godfather film but their presence is felt.  Above all else, it’s Vito’s political influence that sets in motion all of the events that unfold over the course of the film.

The Godfather, of course, won the Oscar for best picture of 1972.  And while it’s rare that I openly agree with the Academy, I’m proud to say that this one time is a definite exception.