Hail, Hero! (1969, directed by David Miller)


After going away to college, Carl Dixon (25 year-old Michael Douglas, in his film debut) has returned to his rural hometown.  Though Carl comes from a family with a long military tradition, he’s against the war in Vietnam and is considered to be a hippie by his family.  As soon as his stern father (Arthur Kennedy) sees Carl, he sits him down in the kitchen and, after declaring that no one is going to mistake his son for a girl, cuts his hair.  Meanwhile, Carl’s mother (Teresa Wright) stays out of the conflict between her husband and her son while Carl’s older brother (Peter Strauss) continues to resent Carl for the accident that injured his spinal cord and kept him from going off to war.

Carl has an announcement to make.  Despite being against the war in Vietnam, he’s joined the army.  He will soon be going overseas, where he’ll get a chance to be a hero and where he says he hopes to love the enemy.  No one in his family can understand his decision, though they certainly spend a lot of time talking about it.  Carl can’t explain it either, though he certainly keeps trying.  Eventually, Carl ends up going for a swim with a local girl (Deborah Winters), smoking weed with a woman who lives in a cave with a mummified baby, and painting the family barn with a mural that’s supposed to explain it all.

Hail, Hero! is an extremely talky film that wants to say something about the war in Vietnam but it doesn’t seem to know what.  The film’s too sincere in its confusion to be a disaster but it’s also too muddled to really be effective.  Carl is opposed to the war but he drops out of college and enlists because it’s what his father would have wanted him to do but his father doesn’t seem to be impressed with the decision and Carl doesn’t seem to like his father to begin with so why volunteer for something that you find to be immoral?  The film would have been effective if Carl had been drafted into the war and had to choose between reporting for duty or fleeing to Canada.  But having him drop out of college and volunteer to serve makes it more difficult to sympathize with him when he talks about how opposed he is to the war.

If the film gets any attention today, it is probably because of Michael Douglas in the lead role.  This was Douglas’s film debut.  He was 25 when he made the film and he was already a dead ringer for his father.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t give a very good performance.  He’s miscast in the lead role.  Carl Dixon is supposed to be insecure and conflicted.  Insecure is not something that comes to mind when you think about Michael Douglas.  Instead, Carl just comes across as being petulant and self-righteous.  Hail, Hero! tries to say something about the war in Vietnam but Carl Dixon’s the wrong messenger.

Framed (1975, directed by Phil Karlson)


Revenge can be brutal, especially when you’ve been framed.

Joe Don Baker plays Ron Lewis, a surly nightclub owner and gambler who wins a small fortune, witnesses a crime, and nearly gets shot all in the same night.  When he reaches his house, he’s planning on calling the police but he’s confronted in his own garage by a sheriff’s deputy who tries to kill him!  In a lengthy and brutal scene, Ron beats the deputy to death and gouges out his eyes.  Even though Ron was only acting in self-defense, he’s charged with murder.  Told that there is no way that he’ll be able to win an acquittal, Ron pleads guilty to a lesser charge and is sent to prison for four years.

While he’s in prison, Ron befriends a mob boss (John Marley, who famously woke up with a horse’s head in his bed in The Godfather) and the boss’s number one hitman, Vince (Gabriel Dell).  While Ron is in prison, a group of men assault his girlfriend (country singer Conny Van Dyke) and tell her not to ask any questions about the events that led to Ron being framed.

After serving his sentence and getting into numerous fights with the guards, Ron is finally released.  When Vince shows up and tells Ron that he’s been hired to kill him, the two of them team up with an honest deputy (Brock Peters) and set out to find out why Ron was set up and to get revenge.

Framed is a brutal movie, Ron and his friends hold nothing back in their quest to get revenge.  Whether he’s shooting a man in cold blood or hooking someone up to a car battery in order to get information out of him, there’s little that Ron won’t do and the movie lingers over every act of violence.  Several pounds overweight and snarling out of his lines, Joe Don Baker may not be a conventional action hero but he’s believable in his rage.  He’s the ultimate country boy who has been pushed too far and now he doesn’t care how much blood he has to get on his hands.  However, because Baker does seem more like an ordinary person than a Clint Eastwood or a Charles Bronson-type, he retains the audience’s sympathy even as he splashes blood all over the screen.  As violent as his action may be, they always feel justified.

Baker’s performance and the believable violence are the film’s biggest strengths.  It’s biggest weakness is a plot that revolves around an elaborate conspiracy that doesn’t always make sense and some notably weak supporting performances.  Ron’s revenge may be brutal but it takes a while to get there and the first hour gets bogged down with Ron’s struggle to adjust to life in prison.  John Marley does a good job as Ron’s prison mentor but then he abruptly disappears from the movie.

Before making Framed, Baker and director Phil Karlson previously collaborated on Walking Tall.  Framed is far more violent than that film was but its plot doesn’t hold together as well.  However, if you’re just looking for a violent action film that features Joe Don Baker doing what he does best, Framed delivers.

Scenes That I Love: Harry Meets The Mayor From Dirty Harry


Today, we wish a happy 89th birthday to the one and only Clint Eastwood!

At this point of his career (from which he says he is now semi-retired), Clint Eastwood has become an American icon.  In many ways, his persona epitomizes all of the contrasts and extremes of the American experience.  A political conservative who specializes in playing taciturn and rather grouchy men, he is also one of our most humanistic directors, specializing in films that often question the traditional view of history and morality.  He may have first become a star in Europe but Clint Eastwood is definitely an American original.

In honor of his birthday, I’m sharing a scene that I love from 1971’s Dirty Harry.  In this scene, Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) meets the Mayor of San Francisco (John Vernon).  The mayor is concerned that there’s a psycho on the loose, gunning people down and demanding money.  Callahan’s annoyed that he’s spent a lot of time sitting in a waiting room.  Things pretty much go downhill from there.

There’s so much that I love about this scene.  Both Eastwood and Vernon do a wonderful job playing off of each other.  The Mayor may be in charge of the city but Callahan probably didn’t vote for him.  One thing that I especially love about this scene is the look of annoyance that crosses Harry’s face whenever he’s interrupted.

And, of course, there’s that final line!  Eastwood does a great job explaining Harry’s “policy” but ultimately, it’s Vernon’s “I think he’s got a point,” that provides the perfect closing note.

Happy birthday, Mr. Eastwood!

Griffith Gets Serious: Winter Kill (1974, directed by Jud Taylor)


Eagle Lake, a mountain resort town in California, has a problem.  It’s almost tourist season and there is a sniper stalking through the night, using his rifle to pick off citizens and painting messages like “The First” and “The Second” in the snow.  It’s up to police chief Sam McNeill (Andy Griffith) to figure out the killer’s motives and capture him before the vacation season begins!  To catch the killer, McNeill is going to have to investigate his friends and neighbors, all of whom have secrets that they don’t want to have revealed.

1974 was a busy year for Andy Griffith.  Best-known for playing the folksy and reassuring Sheriff Taylor for over ten years on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to change his image by appearing in three unexpectedly dark made-to-TV movies.  In Pray For The Wildcats and Savages, Griffith played the villain.  In Winter Kill, he’s back in a more familiar role.  He is once again playing a lawman, though this one carries a gun and doesn’t have time to sit on his porch and play the guitar while Aunt Bea makes dinner.  Instead, he’s getting pressure from all sides to capture a psycho sniper who, at the start of the movie, shoots an old woman after throwing pebbles at her bedroom window.  Eventually, the sniper even ends up kidnapping Chief McNeill’s girlfriend!  This never happened in Mayberry!

Winter Kill is a pretty good mystery.  It’s not strictly a horror film but the sight of the masked sniper, making his way through the night and coldy gunning down unsuspecting victims is scary enough that it might as well be.  Andy Griffith was surprisingly tough and gritty as Chief McNeill.  He might be a good guy in this movie but you still know better than to mess with him.  The rest of the cast is made up of television regulars but keep an eye out for a youngish Nick Notle playing a cocky ski instructor.

Winter Kill was actually meant to be a backdoor pilot for a show where Chief McNeill would battle crime on a weekly basis.  Though that didn’t happen, the concept was later retooled and became a short-lived series called Adams of Eagle Lake.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: How The West Was Won (dir by Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, John Ford, and Richard Thorpe)


(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1963 best picture nominee, How The West Was Won!)

How was the west won?

According to this film, the west was won by the brave men and women who set out in search of a better life.  Some of them were mountain men.  Some of them worked for the railroads.  Some of them rode in wagons.  Some of them gambled.  Some of them sang songs.  Some shot guns.  Some died in the Civil War.  The thing they all had in common was that they won the west and everyone had a familiar face.  How The West Was Won is the history of the west, told through the eyes of a collection of character actors and aging stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

In many ways, How The West Was Won was the Avatar of the early 60s.  It was a big, long, epic film that was designed to make viewers feel as if they were in the middle of the action.  Avatar used 3D while How The West Was Won used Cinerama.  Each scene was shot with three synchronized cameras and, when the film was projected onto a curved Cinerama screen, it was meant to create a truly immersive experience.  The film is full of tracking shots and, while watching it on TCM last night, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to see it in 1963 and to feel as if I was plunging straight into the world of the old west.  The film’s visuals were undoubtedly diminished by being viewed on a flat screen and yet, there were still a few breath-taking shots of the western landscape.

The other thing that How The West Was Won had in common with Avatar was a predictable storyline and some truly unfortunate dialogue.  I can understand why How The West Was Won was awarded two technical Oscars (for editing and sound) but, somehow, it also picked up the award for Best Writing, Screenplay or Story.  How The West Was Won is made up of five different parts, each one of which feels like a condensed version of a typical western B-movie.  There’s the mountain man helping the settlers get down the river story.  There’s the Civil War story.  There’s the railroad story and the outlaw story and, of course, the gold rush story.  None of it’s particularly original and the film is so poorly paced that some sections of the film feel rushed while others seem to go on forever.

Some of the film’s uneven consistency was undoubtedly due to the fact that it was directed by four different directors.  Henry Hathaway handled three sections while John Ford took care of the Civil War, George Marshall deal with the coming of the railroad, and an uncredited Richard Thorpe apparently shot a bunch of minor connecting scenes.

And yet, it’s hard not to like How The West Was Won.  Like a lot of the epic Hollywood films of the late 50s and early 60s, it has its own goofy charm.  The film is just so eager to please and remind the audience that they’re watching a story that could only be told on the big screen.  Every minute of the film feels like a raised middle finger to the threat of television.  “You’re not going to see this on your little idiot box!” the film seems to shout at every moment.  “Think you’re going to get Cinerama on NBC!?  THINK AGAIN!”

Then there’s the huge cast.  As opposed to Avatar, the cast of How The West Was Won is actually fun to watch.   Admittedly, a lot of them are either miscast or appear to simply be taking advantage of a quick payday but still, it’s interesting to see just how many iconic actors wander through this film.

For instance, the film starts and, within minutes, you’re like, “Hey!  That’s Jimmy Stewart playing a mountain man who is only supposed to be in his 20s!”

There’s Debbie Reynolds as a showgirl who inherits a gold claim!

Is that Gregory Peck as a cynical gambler?  And there’s Henry Fonda as a world-weary buffalo hunter!  And Richard Widmark as a tyrannical railroad employee and Lee J. Cobb as a town marshal and Eli Wallach as an outlaw!

See that stern-faced settler over there?  It’s Karl Malden!

What’s that?  The Civil War’s broken out?  Don’t worry, General John Wayne is here to save the day.  And there’s George Peppard fighting for the Union and Russ Tamblyn fighting for the Confederacy!  And there’s Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter and Robert Preston and … wait a minute?  Is that Spencer Tracy providing narration?

When Eli Wallach’s gang shows up, keep an eye out for a 36 year-old Harry Dean Stanton.  And, earlier, when Walter Brennan’s family of river pirates menaces Karl Malden, be sure to look for an evil-looking pirate who, for about twenty seconds, stares straight at the camera.  When you see him, be sure to say, “Hey, it’s Lee Van Cleef!”

How The West Was Won is a big, long, thoroughly silly movie but, if you’re a fan of classic film stars, it’s worth watching.  It was a huge box office success and picked up 8 Oscar nominations.  It lost best picture to Tom Jones.

(By the way, in my ideal fantasy world, From Russia With Love secured a 1963 U.S. release, as opposed to having to wait until 1964, and became the first spy thriller to win the Oscar for Best Picture.)

Shattered Politics #11: The Phenix City Story (dir by Phil Karlson)


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If A Man Called Peter was the epitome of a stereotypical 1950s film, The Phenix City Story is the exact opposite.  Like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story was released in 1955.  And like A Man Called Peter, The Phenix City Story is based on a true story.  However, beyond that, A Man Called Peter and The Phenix City Story might as well have been taking place on different planets.

And, in many ways, they were.  The Phenix City Story not only takes place in Phenix City, Alabama but it was filmed there as well and featured a few actual citizens in the cast.  Not only was The Phenix City Story telling a true story but the story was being told by some of the same people who actually lived through it.  That makes The Phenix City Story brutally realistic, with brutal being the key word.

And, just in case we have any doubt about the film’s authenticity, it actually opens with a 15 minute documentary in which Clete Roberts (who was an actual news reporter) interviews several citizens of the town.  All of them, speaking in thick Alabama accents and nervously eyeing the camera, assure us that what we are about to see is true.  Quite a few of them also tells us that they still live in fear of losing their lives as a result of everything that happened.

What’s amazing is that, once the actual film does get started, it manages to live up to all of that build up.  The Phenix City Story is a shocking film that remains powerful even 60 years after it was initially released.

As the film opens, we’re informed that Phenix City, Alabama is home to some of the most dangerous and violent criminals in the state.  From his club, crime boss Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) runs a shadowy organization that not only controls Phenix City but the entire state of Alabama as well.  The police ignore his crimes.  The majority of the town’s citizens are too scared to stand up to him.  When a returning veteran of the Korean War, John Patterson (Richard Kiley), tries to stand up to Tanner, the result is even more violence.  A young black girl is kidnapped and murdered, her body tossed on John’s front lawn as a warning.  John’s best friend is killed but Tanner uses his influence to have the death ruled accidental.

Finally, John and a group of other reformers convince John’s father — Albert Patterson (John McIntire) — to run for Attorney General.  Albert runs on a reform platform and exposes both the corruption of Phenix City and how Tanner’s power extends through the rest of the state as well.  When Albert wins the Democratic primary, he’s gunned down in the street and it’s up to John to avenge his death…

To say that The Phenix City Story is intense would be an understatement.  As directed by Phil Karlson, there’s not a single frame of The Phenix City Story that’s not full of menace and danger.  The stark black-and-white cinematography is full of shadows and the camera moves almost frantically from scene to scene, occasionally catching glimpses of dark figures committing acts of violence and cars speeding away from who knows what outage.  It’s a dark film but, ultimately, it’s also a hopeful one.  It suggests that evil will triumph when good men do nothing but that sometimes you can depend on good men — like Albert and John Patterson — to actually step up.

The Phenix City Story shows up on TCM occasionally and you should keep an eye out for it.  It’s one of the best B-movies ever made.

Horror on TV: The Twilight Zone 3.8 “It’s A Good Life”


 

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Don’t think bad thoughts or Anthony Freemont will turn you into a giant jack in the box!

That’s lesson to be learned from tonight’s example of televised horror. In this classic episode of The Twilight Zone, the citizens of Peaksville always have to be happy or else they’ll be punished by the cruel monster that lives among them. The big twist, of course, is that the monster is just a little boy and sometimes, it’s difficult to predict what exactly is going to upset him.

It’s A Good Life was originally broadcast on November 3rd, 1961.