Hooper (1978, directed by Hal Needham)


Reuniting the Smokey and the Bandit team of director Hal Needham and stars Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, Hooper is a film that pays tribute to stuntmen.

Hooper (Burt Reynolds) is a respected but aging stunt coordinator who is currently working on an overblown action film called The Spy Who Laughed At Danger.  (The spy is played by Adam West, who appears as himself.)  Hooper knows that he’s getting too old to keep putting his life at risk but he’s addicted to thrill of doing what he calls “gags.”  Every morning, Hooper wakes up, pops pills, has a beer, and then falls off a building or crashes a car.  When he’s not doing movies, he’s getting into bar brawls.  As demonstrated during a visit to Dodge City, Hooper and his friends are modern day cowboys  but time is catching up to them.  Hooper’s girlfriend, Gwen (Sally Field), wants Hooper to settle down and retire from the business before he ends up a physical wreck like her father (Brian Keith).  Hooper feels that he has to do one last, record-setting stunt before he passes the torch over to younger stuntmen like Ski Shidski (Jan-Michael Vincent).

Hooper is a classic Burt Reynolds film, with everything that you expect from late 70s Burt.  As always, Burt is deceptively laid back.  Sally Field is cute as a button.  Old hands like Brian Keith and James Best provide strong support while Robert Klein plays the type of pompous Hollywood director who is just begging to get slugged at the end of the movie.  (He does.)  The plot of Hooper is even simpler than the plot of Smokey and the Bandit but Hooper is a more heartfelt film.  Hal Needham was a stuntman before he became a director and this film was his tribute to the underappreciated people who risked their physical well-being to make movie magic.  Needham knew men like Hooper and his friends.  They were his people.  Needham’s love for the stunt players comes through in every scene.

As for the stunts, they’re real and they’re spectacular.

 

Hal Needham, of course, will always be associated with Burt Reynolds.  Before moving into directing, Needham frequently served as Reynolds’s stunt double and the two were such close friends that Needham spent 12 years living in Reynolds’s guest house.  Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was partially inspired by the friendship of Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, with Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt playing characters who were based on the two men.  (Reynolds was even originally cast in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as George Spahn but he died before he could shoot his scenes. The role was taken over by Bruce Dern.)  Needham was responsible for directing some of Burt’s best films (Cannonball Run, Smokey and the Bandit and this one) and some of his worst (Stroker Ace and Cannonball Run II).  Needham also directed Megaforce, which didn’t feature Burt but which is still, in its own way, unforgettable.

Hal Needham (1931 — 2013)

The critics may not have loved the movies that Hal and Burt made together but audiences did.  Needham’s best films are just as entertaining today as they were when they were originally released.  They don’t demand much but they deliver everything you could possibly want.  Whenever the real world is getting to be overwhelming, I’m thankful that I can turn on a Hal Needham film and return to a world where the only thing that matters is driving fast, loving hard, and having a good laugh while you’re doing it.  Today, more than ever, the legacy of Hal Needham is just what we need.

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.

18 Days of Paranoia #3: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (dir by Larry Cohen)


The 1977 film, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, opens in 1972.

J. Edgar Hoover, the much-feared and long-serving director of the FBI, has just been found dead at his home and it seems like the entire city of Washington, D.C. is scrambling.  Not only are people jockeying for Hoover’s job but they’re also wondering what might be found in his secret files.  As quickly becomes apparent, Hoover had a file on everyone.  While Presidents lauded him and the press portrayed him as hero, Hoover spent nearly 50 years building up a surveillance state.  Hoover said it was to fight criminals and subversives but mostly, it was just to hold onto his own power.  Even President Nixon is heard, in the Oval Office, ordering his men to get those files.

Hoover may have known everyone’s secrets but, the film suggests, very few people knew his.  The film is narrated by a former FBI agent named Dwight Webb (Rip Torn).  Dwight talks about how he was kicked out of the FBI because it was discovered that he not only smoked but that he was having an adulterous affair with a secretary.  “You know how Hoover was about that sex stuff,” he says, his tone suggesting that there’s more to the story than just Hoover being a bit of a puritan.

We flash back to the 1920s.  We see a young Hoover (James Wainwright) as a part of the infamous Palmer Raids, an early effort by the Justice Department to track down and deport communist subversives.  Though Hoover disagrees with the legality of the Palmer Raids, he still plays his part and that loyalty is enough to eventually get him appointed, at the age of 29, to be the head of the agency that would eventually become the FBI.  Hoover may start out as a relatively idealistic man but it doesn’t take long for the fame and the power to go to his head.

Hoover (now played by Broderick Crawford) serves a number of Presidents, each one worse the one who proceeded him.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) is an avuncular despot while the Kennedy brothers (William Jordan as John and Michael Parks as Bobby) are two rich brats who think that they can control Hoover but who soon discover that Hoover is far more clever than they realize.  Hoover finds himself a man out-of-place in the 60s and the 70s,  Suddenly, he’s no longer everyone’s hero and people are starting to view the FBI as being not a force for law enforcement but instead an instrument of oppression.

Through it all, Hoover remains an enigma.  He demands a lot of from his agents but he resents them if they’re too successful.  Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks) might find fame for leading the manhunt that took down Dillinger but he’s driven to suicide by Hoover’s cruel treatment.  Unlike Clint Eastwood’s film about Hoover, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover suggests that Hoover was not gay but that instead, that he was so repressed that he was essentially asexual.  When one woman throws herself at him, he accuses her of being a subversive and demands to know how anyone could find him attractive.  He’s closest to his mother and when she dies, he shuts off his emotions.  His own power, for better and worse, becomes the one thing that he loves.  He’s married to the FBI and he often behaves like an abusive spouse.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is an interesting film.  It’s an attempt to do a huge American epic on a less than epic budget.  At the start of the film, the low budget is undeniably distracting.  The 1920s are essentially represented by a back lot and two old cars.  The scenes of the FBI dealing with gangsters like Dillinger and Creepy Karpis feel awkward and slapdash.  But, as the film’s timeline gets closer to what was then the modern era, the film’s story tightens up and so does Larry Cohen’s direction.  (One get the feeling that Cohen was, perhaps understandably, more interested in the Hoover of the 60s and the 70s than the Hoover of the 20s and 30s.  There’s a sharpness to the second half of the movie that is just missing from the first half.)  Broderick Crawford gives a chilling performance as a man who is determined to hold onto his power, just for the sake of having it.  The scenes were Hoover and Bobby Kennedy snap at each other have a charge that’s missing from the first half of the film.  Michael Parks does a great job portraying RFK as basically being a spoiled jerk while Crawford seems to relish the chance to play up the resentful, bitter old man aspects of Hoover’s personality.  The film ultimately suggests that whether the audience previously admired RFK or whether they previously admired Hoover, they were all essentially duped.

Though the film never quite overcomes the limits of its low budget, it works well as a secret history of the United States.  In 1977, it undoubtedly took guts to make a film that portrayed Roosevelt and Kennedy as being as bad as Nixon and Johnson.  (It would probably even take guts today.  One need only rewatch something like The Butler or Hyde Park on Hudson to see the ludicrous lengths Hollywood will go to idealize presidents like Kennedy and dictators like FDR.)  While this film certainly doesn’t defend J. Edgar Hoover’s excesses, it often suggests that the president he served under were just as bad, if not even worse.  In the end, it becomes a portrait of not only how power corrupts but also why things don’t change, regardless of who is nominally in charge.  In the end the film’s villain is not J. Edgar Hoover.  Instead, the film’s villain is the system that created and then enabled him.  The man may be dead but the system remains.

Previous entries in the 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau

 

Horror on TV: One Step Beyond 2.5 “Night of the Kill” (dir by John Newland)


When young Davey Morris tells his parents that he’s been hanging out with a friendly Bigfoot-type creature, all of the adults in town react in the worst way possible.

This episode, from the second season of One Step Beyond, was one of the first to deal with the legend of Bigfoot.  Needless to say, it’s the adults who turn out to be the true monsters in this scenario.

This episode originally aired on October 20th, 1959.

 

30 Days of Noir #28: Time Table (dir by Mark Stevens)


Like many good crime films, this 1956 film noir opens on a train.

A passenger has suddenly been taken ill and his wife, Linda (Felecia Farr), wants to know if there’s  a doctor on board!  Fortunately, there is!  Dr. Paul Bucker (Wesley Addy) just happens to be on the train and it only takes him a few minutes to figure out that the man is suffering from polio.  Paul arranges for the train to make an unscheduled stop in the next town so that the man can be taken to the hospital.  Paul also asks to be allowed to go to the baggage car, so that he can retrieve his doctor’s bag.  Of course, he can!  Who is going to say no to doctor, especially in a situation this serious?

Paul goes back to the baggage area to claim his little black bag and that’s when something unexpected happens.  He opens up his bag and pulls out a gun.  It turns out that Paul is not only a doctor but he’s a thief as well.  After tying up everyone in the car and knocking them out with a sleeping drug, Paul proceeds to blow open a safe and steal all the money within.

When the train makes it unscheduled stop, Paul, the man, and Linda (who is actually Paul’s wife), disembark.  They get into an ambulance driven by the shady Frankie Page (Jack Klugman) and they head off.  It’s only after Paul’s escaped that the robbery is discovered.

With authorities baffled by the crime, insurance investigator Charlie Norman (Mark Stevens) is assigned to investigate the robbery with railroad policeman, Joe Armstrong (King Calder).  Despite the fact that Charlie has been promising to take a vacation with his wife (Marianne Stewart), Charlie takes the case.  Everyone knows that Charlie is one of the best in the business.  If anyone’s going to catch these criminals, it’s going to be Charlie!

Of course, Charlie has another reason for taking the case.  It turns out that Charlie’s the one who masterminded the entire robbery!  He’s the one who first met Paul while the alcoholic doctor was attempting to file a false claim.  It also turns out that Charlie has been having an affair with Linda and that Charlie’s planning on running off with her as soon as they take care of Paul.

Mark Stevens both directed and starred in Time Table and the end result is a well-made and genuinely exciting film noir, one that features all of the hard-boiled dialogue, shadowy interiors, and twisty complications that one could hope for from a good heist film.  Stevens not only keeps the action moving at a steady pace but he also keeps you guessing about whether our band of criminals are going to make it to Mexico or if they’re going to all fall victim to one betrayal too many.  The film is full of nice character turns, though the strongest performance comes from Wesley Addy, who brings a wounded dignity to his duplicitous character.

For fans of film noir, this is definitely one to watch.

Horror On TV: Kolchak: The Night Stalker 1.13 “Primal Scream” (dir by Robert Scheerer)


Tonight on Kolchak….

What happens when an oil company discovers new, undefined organic matter in the arctic circle?

Well, first off, they mishandle it and it ends up turning into a prehistoric, killer ape-man.

Secondly, it’s time for a corporate cover-up!

Fortunately, the world’s greatest (if unluckiest) journalist, Carl Kolchak, is on the case!

Anyway, this is an okay episode of Kolchak.  If I don’t seem as enthused about it as I’ve been about some of the previous episodes, it’s because a killer, prehistoric ape-man just isn’t as much fun as a Cajun demon or a killer robot.  Still, this episode has a nicely done, underground tunnel-set climax.  Seriously, you can’t go wrong with an underground tunnel.

This episode originally aired on January 17th, 1975.

Enjoy!

A Movie A Day #243: The Joe Louis Story (1953, directed by Robert Gordon)


Joe Louis, also known as the Brown Bomber, is generally agreed to have been one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of all time.  Despite the barriers put up by both poverty and racism, Louis held the world heavyweight championship from 1937 to 1949 and successfully defended his title in 26 fights (ranking him second to only Julio Cesar Chavez, who had 27 title defenses).  In 1938, he defeated German Max Schmelling, disproving Nazi claims that a black man could not defeat an Aryan and making Louis, along with Jesse Owens, one of the first African-American athletes to achieve nationwide hero status in America.

The Joe Louis Story, which was made and released shortly after Louis lost his final fight to Rocky Marciano and announced his retirement from boxing, tells an effective but sanitized version of Louis’s life story.  Made on an obviously low budget, The Joe Louis Story hits all the highlights — Joe’s relationship with trainer Jack Blackburn (James Edwards), Joe’s marriage to Marva Trotter (Hilda Simms), Joe’s two fights against Max Schmelling, and Joe’s time in the army — while ignoring most of the lowlights.  No mention is made of Joe’s financial troubles, Joe’s initial struggle to even get a match against the white heavyweights of the day, or the infidelity that led to Joe and Marva’s divorce.  The Joe Louis Story does briefly touch on racism when Joe is told that, as a black man, he already has a strike against him as far as the boxing establishment is concerned.

The best thing about The Joe Louis Story is that it features footage from Louis’s actual fights. Coley Wallace, the boxer who was hired to play the title role, bore a remarkable resemblance to Joe and the footage of the real Joe Louis boxing is easily mixed in with scene of Wallace as Joe.  Wallace was not much of an actor but, as a real-life boxer, he still brought enough authenticity to the role that his casting works.

One final note: In real life, Joe Louis ended his career after a brutal loss to Rocky Marciano.  Before turning pro, Marciano lost four fights as an amueter.  One of those losses came in 1948 when Marciano was defeated in the final round of the New York Golden Gloves tournament.  The fighter who defeated Rocky Marciano?  Coley Wallace.

The TSL’s Daily Horror Grindhouse: Deathdream (dir by Bob Clark)


deathdream_poster_01

The 1974 film Deathdream opens with American soldier Andy Brooks (played by Richard Backus) on patrol in Vietnam. When he’s suddenly shot by an unseen sniper, he hears his mother’s voice calling out to him, telling him that he promised to come home. With the voice filling his head, Andy closes his eyes.

Sometime later, back in America, Andy’s family has been informed that Andy was killed in action. His father (John Marley, who you might recognize as the man who played Jack Woltz in The Godfather) and his younger sister (Anya Ormsby) have managed to accept the fact that Andy is dead but his mother (Lynn Carlin) remains in denial. Oddly enough, his mother is apparently proven to be correct in her doubts when Andy suddenly shows up at the front door.

The family (and, eventually, the entire community) welcomes Andy home but it quickly becomes apparent that Andy has returned as a far different person than when he left. Now pasty and emotionless, Andy spends most of his day sitting around listlessly. It’s only at night that Andy seems to have any energy and he spends those hours wandering around town and hanging out in the local cemetery.

It quickly becomes apparent to his father that Andy is no longer quite human. However, his devoted mother continues to insist that nothing is wrong with Andy and, once it becomes apparent just what exactly Andy is doing in order to survive, she becomes just as fanatical about protecting him as his father is about destroying him.

Not surprisingly, Deathdream is more than just a zombie film.  When Andy suddenly shows up on his family’s doorstep, he’s more than just a decaying monster.  He’s also a metaphor for the unease that viewers in the 70s would have felt about the state of American society.  (Of course, in many ways, contemporary viewers share that same unease.)  Andy goes off to war and it literally robs him of his humanity.  I would also argue that, in its way, Deathdream serves as a satire of the type of complacent society that sends young people off to fight for their lives and then expects them to come back exactly the same as they were before they left.  No matter how strange Andy’s behavior becomes, the people around him are willing to either ignore it or make excuses for it.  Andy’s mother emerges as a stand-in for everyone who willfully refuses to acknowledge the human consequences of war.

Deathdream is one of those wonderful horror films that deserves to be better known than it is. Deathdream was an early credit for the legendary effects artist Tom Savini and, while the film itself is not especially gory, Savini’s work can definitely be seen in the scenes where Backus’s body slowly decays. Screenwriter Alan Ormsby and director Bob Clark (who later went on to direct the far different A Christmas Story) perfectly creates and maintains a deceptively low-key atmosphere of perpetual unease while the cast elevates the entire film. Backus makes for an all-too plausible ghoul and Marley is great as a man struggling to understand what his son has become. The film is totally stolen, however, by Lynn Carlin who is both poignant and frightening as Andy’s devoted mother.

If you haven’t discovered Deathdream yet, this Halloween is the perfect season to do so.

Horror Film Review: The Car (dir by Elliot Silverstein)


The_Car_movie_poster

“THE CAR IS IN THE GARAGE” 

— Captain Wade Parent (James Brolin) in The Car (1977)

Yes, that’s right!  The car is in the garage and it’s hunting for blood!

The Car is a pretty stupid movie that doesn’t really work but at least it’s enjoyably stupid.  From the minute I started watching this movie, I knew that the only way I could recommend it would be if James Brolin shouted, “The car is in the garage!” at some point.  When he did, I had to cheer a little.  I love being able to recommend a movie.

The Car takes place in the small desert town of Santa Ynez.  Nothing much ever seems to happen in Santa Ynez, which perhaps explains why the police force is so large.  (Why wouldn’t you want to be a police officer in a town with no crime?  It wouldn’t be a very demanding job.)  Sheriff Everett Peck (John Marley) keeps the peace and sends his time talking about how much he hates bullies.  Wade Parent (James Brolin) is his second-in-command and has a 70s pornstache.  Wade’s best friend is Deputy Luke Johnson (Ronny Cox), a recovering alcoholic with impressive sideburns.  And then there’s a few dozen other cops.  Seriously, this tiny town has a HUGE police force.

One day, however, the police finally get something to do.  A black Lincoln Continental has suddenly appeared, stalking the roads around the town.  It doesn’t have a licence plate and the windows are tinted a dark red so it’s impossible to see who — if anyone — is driving.  Stranger still, the car’s doors have no handles.  When the car does show up, it seems to appear out of nowhere and once it’s run someone over, it seems to vanish just as quickly.

When the car first appears, it runs down two cyclists.  A few hours later, it kills an obnoxious hippie hitchhiker (John Rubinstein).  The only witness was alcoholic wife beater Amos Clements (R.G. Armstrong).  When Amos goes to the police, the car tries to run him over as well but instead, it ends up killing Sheriff Peck.

Now, Wade is in charge and he has to do something about the car.  Unfortunately, Wade’s girlfriend, Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), made the mistake of screaming insults at the car when the car attempted to run down the school marching band.  Now, the car is stalking her.  Meanwhile, Luke is convinced that the car is being driven by none other than devil.  Wade says that’s impossible.  Luke points out that the car refuses to drive through consecrated ground.

And eventually, the car does show up in the garage…

The Car is one of the stupider of the many Jaws ripoffs that I’ve seen.  You’ll be rooting for the car through the entire film, which is good since the car kills nearly everyone in Santa Ynez.  (If any of them were likable, The Car wouldn’t as much fun to watch.)  It’s dumb but the film does have an appropriately silly ending and James Brolin does get to yell, “The car is in the garage!”

So, there is that.

Film Review: The Greatest (1977, dir by Tom Gries and Monte Hellman)


the_greatest_1977_portrait_w858The Greatest opens with 18 year-old Cassius Clay (played by Chip McAllister as a teenager and, as an adult, by Muhammad Ali himself) winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics.  Returning home to Kentucky, Clay discovers that not even a gold medal can protect him from racism.  Angered after a restaurant refuses to serve him and his friend, Clay throws his gold medal into the Ohio River.  Under the training of Angelo Dundee (Ernest Borgnine), Clay turns pro and defeats Sonny Liston (Roger E. Mosley) for the heavyweight championship.  Inspired by Malcolm X (James Earl Jones), Clay also joins the Nation of Islam and changes his name to Muhammad Ali.  As heavyweight champion, Ali battles not only his opponents in the ring but racism outside of it.  The Greatest follows Ali as he loses his title for refusing to be drafted and concludes with the famous Rumble in the Jungle, where Ali won the title back from George Foreman.

Sadly, Muhammad Ali has never been the subject of a truly great feature film.  Even Michael Mann’s Ali failed to really capture the mystique that made Ali into such an iconic figure.  The Greatest is interesting because Ali plays himself.  Unfortunately, The Greatest proves that Ali may have been a great showman but he was not a natural actor.  You only have to watch the scene where Ali tries to hold his own with Robert Duvall to see just how stiff an actor Muhammad Ali really was.  Ali’s best scenes are the ones where he is trash talking his opponents or training.  The film opens with Ali jogging while George Benson sings The Greatest Love Of All, a scene that is made all the more poignant when you compare the athletic and confident Muhammad Ali of 1977 with the frail, Parkinson’s stricken Ali of today.

29Muhammad-Ali-1Instead of recreating any of Ali’s legendary fights, The Greatest instead uses actual footage of the matches.  The real life footage is the best part of the film.  After all these years, Ali’s fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman remain exciting to watch.  Otherwise, The Greatest is too episodic and low budget to do justice to Muhammad Ali’s story.

If you want to see a truly great film about Ali and his legacy, watch the 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, 2009’s Facing Ali or 2013’s The Trials of Muhammad Ali.  Ali is such an iconic figure that it may be impossible for any feature film to properly do justice to his life and legacy.  These three documentaries come close.

(Director Tom Gries died during the filming of The Greatest.  The movie was completed by Monte Hellman.)