Film Review: The Adventurers (dir by Lewis Gilbert)


The 1970 film, The Adventurers, is a film that I’ve been wanting to watch for a while.

Based on a novel by Harold Robbins, The Adventurers was a massively expensive, three-hour film that was released to terrible reviews and even worse box office.  In fact, it’s often cited as one of the worst films of all time, which is why I wanted to see it.  Well, three weeks ago, I finally got my chance to watch it and here what I discovered:

Yes, The Adventurers is technically a terrible movie and Candice Bergen really does give a performance that will amaze you with its ineptitude.  (In her big scene, she sits in a swing and, with a beatific look on her face, begs her lover to push her “Higher!  Higher!”)

Yes, The Adventures is full of sex, intrigue, and melodrama.  Director Lewis Gilbert, who did such a good job with Alfie and The Spy Who Loved Me, directs as if his paycheck is dependent upon using the zoom lens as much as possible and, like many films from the early 70s, this is the type of film where anyone who gets shot is guaranteed to fall over in slow motion, usually while going, “Arrrrrrrrrrrrgh….”  A surprisingly large amount of people get shot in The Adventurers and that adds up to a lot of slow motion tumbles and back flips.  Gilbert also includes a sex scene that ends with a shot of exploding fireworks, which actually kind of works.  If nothing else, it shows that Gilbert knew exactly what type of movie he was making and he may have actually had a sense of humor about it.  That’s what I choose to believe.

Despite the fact that The Adventurers is usually described as being a big-budget soap opera, a good deal of the film actually deals with Latin American politics.  For all the fashion shows and the decadence and the scenes of Candice Bergen swinging, the majority of The Adventures takes place in the Latin American country of Cortoguay.  If you’ve never heard of Cortoguay, that’s because it’s a fictional country.  Two hours of this three-hour film are basically devoted to people arguing and fighting over who is going to rule Cortoguay but it’s kind of impossible to really get to emotionally involved over the conflict because it’s not a real place.

Ernest Borgnine plays a Cortoguayan named — and I’m being serious here — Fat Cat.  Seriously, that’s his name.  And really, how can you not appreciate a movie featuring Ernest Borgnine as Fat Cat?

Fat Cat is the guardian of Dax Xenos (Bekim Fehmiu).  Dax’s father is a Cortoguayan diplomat but after he’s assassinated by the country’s dictator, Dax abandons his home country for America and Europe.  While he’s abroad, Dax plays polo, races cars, and has sex with everyone from Olivia de Havilland to Candice Bergen.  He also gets involved in the fashion industry, which means we get two totally 70s fashion shows, both of which are a lot of fun.  He marries the world’s richest heiress (Bergen) but he’s not a very good husband and their relationship falls apart after a pregnant Bergen flies out of a swing and loses her baby.

Throughout it all, Fat Cat is there, keeping an eye on Dax and pulling him back to not only Cortoguay but also to his first love, Amparo (Leigh Taylor-Young), who just happens to be the daugther of Cortoguay’s dictator, Rojo (Alan Badel).  In fact, when Fat Cat and Dax discover that an acquaintance is selling weapons to Rojo, they lock him inside of his own sex dungeon.  That’s how you get revenge!  And when Dax eventually does return to Cortoguay, Fat Cat is at his side and prepared to fight in the revolution.  Incidentally, the revolution is led by El Lobo (Yorgo Voyagis), who we’re told is the son of El Condor.

The Adventurers is melodramatic, overheated, overlong, overdirected, and overacted and, not surprisingly, it’s eventually a lot of fun.  I mean, the dialogue is just so bad and Lewis Gilbert’s direction is so over the top that you can’t help but suspect that the film was meant to be at least a little bit satirical.  How else do you explain that casting of the not-at-all-Spanish Bekim Fehmiu as a Latin American playboy?  Candice Bergen plays her role as if she’s given up any hope of making sense of her character or the script and the rest of the cast follows her lead.  Ernest Borgnine once said that The Adventurers was the worst experience of his career.  Take one look at Borgnine’s filmography and you’ll understand why that’s such a bold statement.

The Adventurers is three hours long but it’s rarely boring.  Each hour feels like it’s from a totally different film.  It starts out as Marxist agitprop before then becoming a glossy soap opera and then, once Fat Cat and Dax return home and get involved in the revolution, the film turns into “modern” spaghetti western.  It’s a film that tries so hard and accomplishes so little that it becomes rather fascinating.

And, if nothing else, it reminds us that even Fat Cat can be a hero….

 

Film Review: The Fall of the Roman Empire (dir by Anthony Mann)


Why did the Roman Empire fall?

Well, historically, there were several reasons but they can all basically be boiled down to the fact that the Empire got too big to manage and that having two separate capitols certainly didn’t help matters.  The Empire got so large and overextended that the once fabled Roman army was no match for the barbarians.

Of course, if you’ve ever watched a movie about the Roman period, you know exactly why the Empire fell.  It all had to do with decadence, gladiators, human sacrifices, and crazed emperors with unfortunate names like Caligula and Commodus.  The Roman Empire fell because the imperial government descended into soap opera, complete with love triangles, betrayals, and whispered plotting inside the Senate.

Another thing that we’ve learned from the movies is that the fall of the Roman Empire was damn entertaining.  Between the orgies and the men wearing those weird helmets with the brushes on top of them, there’s nothing more fun that watching the Roman Empire fall.

Case in point: the 1964 film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

This three and a half hour epic begins with the last of the good Roman emperors, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guiness), battling to keep the Germanic barbarians from invading the empire.  Marcus is a wise man and a great leader but he knows that his time is coming to an end and he needs to name a successor.  His daughter, Lucilla (Sophia Loren), is an intelligent and compassionate philosopher but, on the basis of her sex, is not eligible to succeed him.  His son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer), may be a great and charismatic warrior but he’s also immature and given to instability.  Marcus’s most trusted adviser, Timonides (James Mason), would never be accepted as a successor because of his Greek birth and background as a former slave.  (Add to that, Timonides is secretly a Christian.)

That leaves Livius (Stephen Boyd).  Livius is one of Marcus’s generals, a man who is not only renowned for his honesty and integrity but one who is also close to the royal family.  Not only is he a former lover of Lucilla’s but he’s also been a longtime friend to Commodus.  Unfortunately, before Marcus can officially name Livius as his heir, the emperor is poisoned.  Commodus is named emperor and things quickly go downhill.  Whereas Marcus ruled with wisdom and compassion, Commodus is a tyrant who crushes anyone who he views as being a potential threat.  Lucilla is married off to a distant king (Omar Sharif).  Timonides is declared an enemy after he suggests that the conquered Germans should be allowed to peacefully farm on Italian land.  Rebellion starts to ferment in every corner of the Empire and Livius finds himself trapped in the middle.  Which side will he join?

Despite all the drama, Commodus is not necessarily an unpopular emperor.  One of the more interesting things about The Fall of the Roman Empire is that Commodus’s popularity grows with his insanity.  The crueler that he is, the more the people seem to love him.  Soon, Commodus is fighting as a gladiator and having people burned at the stake.  While some Romans are horrified, many more love their emperor no matter what.  People love power, regardless of what it’s used for.  Perhaps that’s the main lesson and the main warning that the final centuries of the Roman Empire have to give us.

The Fall of the Roman Empire is surprisingly intimate historical epic.  While there’s all the grandeur that one would normally expect to see in a film about the Roman Empire, the film works best when it concentrates on the characters.  While Boyd and Loren do their best with their thinly drawn roles, the film is stolen by great character actors like Alec Guinness, James Mason, and Christopher Plummer.  Plummer, in particular, seems to be having a blast playing the flamboyantly evil yet undeniably charismatic Commodus.  Even with the Empire collapsing around then, both Plummer as an actor and Commodus as a character seems to be having a blast.  Add to that, there’s all of the usual battles and ancient decadence that you would expect to find in a film about the Roman Empire and the end result is a truly enjoyable epic.

As I watched The Fall of the Roman Empire, it was hard for me not to compare the film to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.  That’s because they’re both basically the same damn movie.  The main difference is that The Fall of the Roman Empire is far more entertaining.  The Fall of the Roman Empire, made in the days before CGI and featuring real people in the streets of Rome as opposed to animated cells, feels real in a way that Gladiator never does.  If Gladiator felt like a big-budget video game, The Fall of the Roman Empire feels like a trip in a time machine.  If I ever do go back to 180 A.D., I fully expect to discover James Mason giving a speech to the Roman Senate while Christopher Plummer struts his way through the gladiatorial arena.

Finally, to answer the question that started this review, why did the Roman Empire fall?

It was all Christopher Plummer’s fault, but at least he had a good time.

30 Days of Noir #26: Behind Green Lights (dir by Otto Brower)


The 1946 film, Behind Green Lights, takes over the course of one night at one police station.

When tough-but-fair Police Lt. Sam Carson (William Gargan) shows up for work, he discovers that a car has been haphazardly parked in front of the station.  Inside the car is bullet-ridden body of Walter Bard, a somewhat notorious private investigator.  If the brazenness of the crime wasn’t already enough to indicate that there’s more going on here than just a detective following the wrong lead, it is soon discovered that Bard was acquainted with Janet Bradley (Carole Landis), the daughter of a reform-minded mayoral candidate.  As Janet explains it to Lt. Carson, Bard was blackmailing a friend of hers.  Janet admits that she had a gun with her the last time that she saw Bard but she swears that she didn’t murder him.

Corrupt newspaper publisher Max Calvert (Roy Roberts) views Janet’s father as being a potential rival and he immediately starts to pressure Lt. Carson to make an arrest in the case.  Not convinced of Janet’s guilt, Carson refuses.  Meanwhile, the crooked coroner (Don Beddoe) comes across evidence that could change the entire case but, as a favor to Calvert, tries to cover it up….

But that’s not all.  It’s a very busy night at the precinct.  Not only does Carson have to deal with the murder and all of the political fallout, he also has to deal with an escapes prisoner and a collection of snarky crime reports who spend all of their hanging out at the station house and waiting for a big story to drop.

Largely set in one location and featuring a cast made up of fast-talking, quick-witted cynics, Behind Green Lights sometimes feel more like a play than a film.  (One could easily imagine it taking place in the same cinematic universe as The Front Page.  Call it the MacArthur/Hecht Cinematic Universe, or MHCU for short.)  Though the film only has a running time of 64 minutes, it manages to pack a lot of twists and turns into that hour.  For the most part, it all works.  The mystery is intriguing, the cast is made up of properly tough character actors, and the tragic Carole Landis is well-cast as a character who could be an innocent victim or a dangerous femme fatale.  The film and her performance will keep you guessing.  (It has been written that Landis, a talented actress who never quite got the roles that roles that she deserved, was heart-broken when Rex Harrison refused to divorce his wife and marry her.  Two years after the release of Behind Green Lights, she was found dead at the age of 29.  The official ruling was suicide, though members of Landis’s family dispute that.)

Behind Green Lights may be a minor noir but it’s still an entertaining one.  And it can be viewed for free on YouTube!  Just remember, when doing an online search, that the film is called Behind Green Lights and not Behind the Green Door.  Don’t make the same mistake that I did!

 

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Terror Night, aka Bloody Movie (dir by Nick Marino)


 

Okay, so this is kind of a weird one.

The movie known as Bloody Movie was originally filmed in 1987, under the title Terror Night.  However, it was never released.  There are plenty of rumors about why it wasn’t released.  Some people say that it was because the film was produced with Mafia money.  Some people say it was because it used a lot of footage that was lifted from other movies and the producers apparently didn’t bother to clear the rights.  Of course, it’s also totally possible that the film wasn’t released because it wasn’t very good.  I mean, that does happen.

Regardless of why, the film apparently sat on the shelf for 20 years.  It was finally released by Fred Olen Ray’s Retromedia and retitled Bloody Movie.  That said, the DVD that I own (and watched for this review) was released by Legacy Entertainment and still had the Terror Night title.  The transfer on the Legacy DVD was notably bad.  From what I’ve been told, the Retromedia release looks a lot better.

Now, there’s a lot bad things that can be said about Terror Night.  It’s low-budget, which is one of those things that can be overcome by a clever director but, in this case, it just results in Terror Night looking cheap.  It’s poorly written, full of one-dimensional characters who were shallow even by the standards of a late 80s slasher.  This is also one of those movies where formerly respectable actors pop up for five minutes cameos.  Whenever one of those actors shows up, all the action stops so that they can earn their paycheck.  Aldo Ray is homeless and doomed.  Cameron Mitchell is a cynical cop and doomed.  Alan Hale, Jr. is an affable security guard and apparently not doomed.  There’s no real reason for any of them to be there but there they are!  There’s also a biker couple who show up for no particular reason, along with the typical collection of teenage victims.

But yet, there are moments when Terror Night goes from being bland to being almost transcendently odd..  There are moments of comedy mixed in with some surprisingly mean-spirited death scenes.  Necks are snapped.  Heads are chopped off.  Bodies are split in half.  It all gets rather messy and the presence of all those old time actors makes the sudden gore scenes feel all the more strange.

However, the main thing that distinguishes Terror Night from the other slashers of the era is the identity of the killer.  (And, before anyone yells at me, this is not a spoiler.  There is never any mystery about who the killer is.)  Lance Hayward is not a zombie like Jason Voorhees or a silent symbol of evil like Michael Myers.  He’s not seeking vengeance for some crime in the past.  Instead, he’s a former silent screen star.  (It seems like Hayward would have been close to 90 years old at the time of Terror Night.  He’s still surprisingly spry.)  Hayward commits his murders while wearing costumes from his old movies.  Adding to the strangeness of the whole scenario is that actual silent footage is spliced into the murder scenes.  Most of the footage comes from movies like The Thief of Baghdad, The Black Pirate, and the Gaucho.  You have to wonder if Douglas Fairbanks cheated the director’s father or something.

(Since Hayward spends most of the movie in costume, I’m assuming that he was mostly played by stuntmen.  When Hayward actually shows his face, he’s played by one-time Oscar nominee, John Ireland.  At the height of his career, Ireland co-starred in films like All The King’s Men.)

As to why a silent scream star would be murdering teenagers … well, your guess is as good as mine.  It’s a strange film, a mix of gore and nostalgia.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it but I still always appreciate anything this strange.

A Movie A Day #64: Gunslinger (1956, directed by Roger Corman)


gunslinger_posterWelcome to Oracle, Texas.  It’s a dusty little town in the old west.  Marshal Scott Hood (William Schallert) may uphold the law but everyone knows that the town is actually run by Erica (Allison Hayes), the owner of the local saloon.  Erica knows that a railroad may be coming to town so she comes up with a plan to buy all the land around Oracle.  She sends her lackey, Jake (Jonathan Haze), to each landowner.  Jake buys the land then murders the landowner so that he can get the money back.

When Scott is gunned down by two outlaws, his widow, Rose (Beverly Garland), takes over as temporary marshal.  Rose has two weeks until the new marshal arrives but that is just enough time for nearly everyone in town to get killed.  It starts when Rose orders Erica to close her saloon at three in the morning.  Erica loses the epic catfight that follows so she hires her former lover, Cane Miro (John Ireland), to come to town and kill Rose.  Cane is more interested in killing the town’s mayor (Martin Kingsley), a former Confederate who abandoned Cane and his brothers to Union forces during the Civil War.  Even more complications arise when Cane and Rose fall in love.

Roger Corman has described Gunslinger as being his most miserable experience as a director.  He filmed it in six days and it rained for five of them, causing cameras and lights to sink into the mud.  Both Allison Hayes and Beverly Garland were injured during filming, with Hayes breaking her arm after falling off a horse and Garland spraining her ankle while running down the stairs of the saloon.  During the filming of an outdoor love scene, both Ireland and Garland were attacked by fire ants.

Gunslinger is usually savaged by reviewers and it was featured on an early episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  But how can any film be that bad if it features an epic cat fight between Beverly Garland and Allison Hayes?  Gunslinger is proof that Beverly Garland and Allison Hayes were actress who could make something entertaining out of even the least inspiring material. Garland gives a serious, heartfelt performance while Hayes goes all out as evil Erica.  Years before he played Seymour in Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, Jonathan Haze is intensely weird as Jake. As with many Corman films, part of the fun is watching for members of the Corman stock company, like Dick Miller and Bruno VeSota, in small roles.   Gunslinger may not be a classic but I like it.

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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.

The Good, The Bad, and The Forgettable: Hate For Hate (1967, directed by Domenico Paolella)


hateforhate2James Cooper (John Ireland) is a non-violent bank robber in the old west.  He wants to hold up one last bank and then retire to his farm with his wife (Gloria Milland) and daughter (Nadia Marconi).  However, he is double-crossed by his partner, Moxon (Mirko Ellis), who kills everyone who works at the bank and tries to steal the money for himself.  After Cooper throws Moxon over the side of a cliff and hides the loot, he is approached by Miguel (Antonio Sabato, Sr.), a young artist who had just deposited his money moments before the bank was robbed.  Miguel explains that he’s been saving up for a future exhibition in New York and he convinces Cooper to give him back his money.

Cooper is soon arrested and, because he was seen talking to the robber, Miguel is accused of being his accomplice.  In jail, Miguel helps Cooper to fight off the other inmates.  When it becomes obvious that Miguel was innocent, he is released.  He promises Cooper that he will check in on Cooper’s family.

Years later, dying of malaria, Cooper escapes from prison and discovers that his family is missing and Miguel seems to be working for Moxon, who survived going over the side of that cliff and is still looking for the loot.

Co-written by Bruno Corbucci (the brother of Django director Sergio Corbucci), Hate For Hate is a by-the-numbers spaghetti western that does not ever match the grandeur of the work of Sergios Leone or Corbucci.  It had a troubled production, with the original director being replaced by a former assistant to Pasolini and the film’s tone changes halfway through, going from being a light-hearted adventure to being a grim and fatalistic story of a dying man seeking revenge.  There are a few good scenes, like when Miguel holds off a group of outlaws by fooling them into believing that he has an army with him.  For spaghetti western fans, the most interesting thing about Hate For Hate is that it was the first excursion into the genre for both John Ireland and Antonio Sabato.

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