Fever Pitch (1985, directed by Richard Brooks)


It takes a great director to come up with a movie as bad as Fever Pitch and, in his day, Richard Brooks was a great director.  Among Brooks’s films as a director you’ll find titles like Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood.  These were all films that took risks and broke new ground and which were willing to defy the conventions of the time.  Brooks was a director who told hard-boiled stories that dealt honestly with real-life issues.

Unfortunately, as often happens with great filmmakers, Brooks struggled to remain relevant as he got older.  Hollywood’s sensibility eventually caught up with Brooks’s sensibility and then moved past it.  While Brooks remained an interesting director, his final films often seemed to be the work of a grumpy old man who just wanted all those young people to stay off his lawn.

Fever Pitch, Brooks’s final film, stars Ryan O’Neal as Steve Taggart.  Taggart is a sports writer for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner.  He’s been writing a series of stories about a compulsive gambler named Mr. Green.  The stories are so popular that his editor (John Saxon) has no problem giving Taggart $10,000 so that Taggart can then give the money to Mr. Green so that Mr. Green can continue to gamble.  What anyone, especially the editor of a major newspaper, should be able to figure out is that Mr. Green is actually Steve Taggart.

Taggart takes the money to Las Vegas, where he hits the casinos while also researching the root causes of gambling.  On the one hand, Brooks includes a lot of scenes of Taggart listening to real people explain the history and the dangers of gambling, often in the most didactic ways possible.  (Hank Greenspun, the legendary publisher of The Las Vegas Sun, appears as himself and shows why he became a publisher and not an actor.)  On other other hand, MGM not only produced the film but allowed it to be filmed at the MGM Grand Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.  Fever Pitch is anti-gambling film that also doubles as a commercial for a casino.  It’s like an anti-smoking film that gives everyone in the audience a free pack of Camels.

Steve hooks up with an unbelievable wholesome prostitute played by Catherine Hicks.  He also has to deal with several shady characters, including a veteran gambler named Charlie (Giancarlo Giannini) ad a debt collector named The Hat (played by William Smith).  Taggart is obsessed with gambling but he doesn’t seem to be very good at it, as he keeps getting beat up and threatened.  Eventually, he goes to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and he seems to be ready to admit that he has a problem and that it’s keeping him from being a good father to his daughter.  That might seem like the ideal place for the movie to end but instead, Taggart has to try his luck with just one last slot machine.

Fever Pitch is doomed from the minute Ryan O’Neal starts his narration.  Nothing about O’Neal suggests that he could be capable of writing a hard-hitting expose about the life of a compulsive gambler.  In this film, he doesn’t even come across like he would be capable of reading it. O’Neal is too passive of an actor to be a convincing gambler and his wooden performance clashes with Brooks’s attempts to create a hyperkinetic feel to the Vegas scenes.  While everyone in the film is lecturing him about the dangers of gambling, O’Neal sit there with same blank look on his face.

A critical and a commercial failure, Fever Pitch was Brooks’s final film.  He died seven years later, leaving behind a legacy of important movies that cannot be tarnished even by something like Fever Pitch.

Snatched (1973, directed by Sutton Roley)


Three women have been kidnapped and are being held prisoner in a lighthouse.  Robin Wood (Tisha Sterling), Kim Sutter (Sheree North), and Barbara Maxvill (Barbara Parkins) are married to three wealthy men and the kidnappers (one of whom is played by the great Anthony Zerbe) assume that the husband will be willing to pay whatever is necessary to get back their wives.  Paul Maxvill (John Saxon) and Bill Sutter (Leslie Nielsen!) are willing to put up the money but Duncan Wood (Howard Duff) scoffs at the idea of paying a million dollars just to see his adulterous wife again!

It sounds like the set-up for a Ransom of Red Chief-type of comedy but Snatched is actually a very serious and intelligent thriller, one that will definitely keep you on your toes as you try to keep up with who is working for who.  Kim is diabetic and is growing weaker every minute that she’s being held in the lighthouse.  Paul, Bill, and police detective Frank McCloy (Robert Reed) try to get Duncan to pay his share of the ransom but Duncan is convinced that his wife has been cheating on him and he refuses to pay for her.  On top of that, it turns out that one of the wives might be in on the scheme.  When she tells the kidnappers that she’s actually the one who came up with the plan, is she just trying to protect the other wives or is she telling the truth?  It leads to betrayal and a surprisingly downbeat ending.

Snatched is a well-produced made-for-TV movie.  The mystery will keep you guessing and the cast is made up of a collection of old pros.  Leslie Nielsen, cast here long before he reinvented himself as a comedic actor, is especially good as Bill Sutter and John Saxon gives one of his better performances as Paul.  Even Robert Reed gives a good performance.  Snatched is a classic made-for-TV mystery.

War Hunt (1962, directed by Denis Sanders)


In the last days of the Korean War, Pvt. Roy Loomis (Robert Redford) is assigned to an infantry unit that’s serving on the front lines.  Loomis is an idealist who believes in always doing the right thing and who believes that he’s truly fighting for the American way of life in Korea.  The company’s commander (Charles Aidman) is more cynical.  As he explains it, the job of the soldiers is not to win the war.  Their job is to stall the advance of the enemy long enough to let the politicians and the diplomats get what they want out of a peace settlement.  The soldiers are merely there to be sacrificed.

Loomis soon finds himself in conflict with Pvt. Endore (John Saxon).  Endore spends his night sneaking around behind enemy lines, killing soldiers, and gathering intelligence.  No one goes with Endore on these missions and Endore makes it clear that he doesn’t want to have anything to do with the other solders in the unit.  Because Endore usually returns with valuable intelligence, he’s allowed to do what he wants but it becomes clear that gathering intelligence is not what motivates Endore.  Endore loves war and killing.  In the United States, he would probably be on death row.  In Korea, at the height of the war, he’s a valuable asset.

Charlie (Tommy Matsuda) is an orphan boy who has been adopted as the company’s mascot.  Both Loomis and Endore have a bond with Charlie.  Loomis wants Charlie to go to an orphanage after the war so that he can hopefully be adopted and maybe brought over the United States.  Endore, however, plans to stay in Korea even after the war ends and he wants to keep Charlie with him.  He wants to turn Charlie into as efficient a killing machine as he is.

This low-budget but effective anti-war film may be best known for featuring Robert Redford in his first starring role but the film is stolen by John Saxon, who is frighteningly intense as Endore.  Endore is so in love with war that he continues to fight it even after the Armistice is declared.  Saxon plays him like a cool and calculating predator, a natural born killer.  He’s an introvert who rarely speaks to the other members of the company.  Even though he helps them by killing the enemy before the enemy can kill them, it’s clear that Endore doesn’t really care about the other members of the unit.  He just cares about killing.  He’s close to Charlie because Charlie is too young to realize just how dangerous Endore actually is.

Along with Saxon and Redford, War Hunt also features early performances from Tom Skerritt, Sydney Pollack, and Francis Ford Coppola.  (Coppola, who goes uncredited, plays an ambulance driver.)  Pollack and Redford met while they were both acting in this film and Pollack would go on to direct Redford in several more films.  One of those films, The Electric Horseman, would reunite Redford and Saxon.  Again, they would play adversaries.

Last night, when I heard John Saxon had died, I tried to pick his best performance.  I know that most people know him from his horror work and his role in Enter the Dragon.  Those are all good performances but, for me, Saxon was at his absolute best in War Hunt.

 

4 Shots From 4 Films: Special John Saxon Edition


4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Rest in Peace, the great and iconic John Saxon.

Here are….

4 Shots From 4 Films

Evil Eye (1963, dir by Mario Bava)

Enter the Dragon (1973, dir by Robert Clouse)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, dir by Chuck Russell)

Hellmaster (1992, dir by Douglas Schulze)

Cinemax Friday: Maximum Force (1992, directed by Joseph Mehri)


Max Tanabe (Richard Lynch) is Los Angeles’s biggest crime lord, involved in everything from prostitution to illegal fight clubs.  But, because he’s rich, no one can touch him.  He plays golf with the mayor.  He’s paid off the police commissioner (Mickey Rooney).  The police commissioner spends the entire movie riding around in a limo.  How do you think he was able to afford that?

Captain Fuller (John Saxon) needs some new jack cops to take down a new jack gangster so he goes out and recruits three.  Cody Randal (Sherries Ross) works vice.  Rick Carver (Jason Lively) is a “tech expert” who rigs toy cars with explosives.  Mike Crews (Sam J. Jones) is looking to avenge the death of his partner.  Fuller brings them together and put them through an extensive training course.  At the end of it, he tests their skills and their teamwork by bringing in a secret team of ninjas to attack them.

Which begs the question: If you already have a secret team of ninjas, why do you have to recruit and train three detectives to take down Tanabe?  Why not just have the ninjas do it?

So, logic is not exactly Maximum Force‘s strong point but it still has some good points.  For instance, you have to respect any movie that can bring together Richard Lynch and John Saxon, not to mention Mickey Rooney!  Of course, there’s not really much of a reason for Mickey Rooney to be there.  All of his scenes feature him in the limo and they are edited together so awkwardly that it seems probable the he never actually acted opposite any of his co-stars.  But it doesn’t matter because he’s Hollywood legend Mickey Rooney, picking up a paycheck in his twilight years.  As for Saxon and Lynch, they do what they do best and bring gravitas to their otherwise stock roles.

As for the three heroes, they’re adequate even if none of them really shine.  I liked the tech expert the best but that was just because he rigged all of those remote control cars to explode.  Sam J. Jones and Sherrie Ross are both better at throwing punches than showing emotion but that’s what a film like this demands.  Some of the fight scenes are exciting.  There’s a helicopter attack early in the film.  Towards the end of the film, when Mike decides that the team needs some extra help, he calls in an amateur wrestler named Bear who just randomly shows up during the final battle.  Maximum Force knows what its audience wants and that’s the important thing.

Mitchell (1976, directed by Andrew V. McLaglen)


Mitchell (played by Joe Don Baker and don’t you forget it) is a detective who rubs everyone the wrong way because he’s a huge slob.  In order to keep Mitchell from investigating a murder committed by a mobbed-up lawyer named Walter Deaney (John Saxon), Mitchell’s superiors order him to conduct surveillance on businessman James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam).  Cummings is in the export/import game, which can only mean that he’s looking to smuggle heroin in the United States.  Mitchell balks at having to spend hours sitting in a car and watching a house but he finally agree to do it just so he can show up his superiors.  “I’m going to get Deaney and Cummings!” he says.

In order to get Mitchell off of his back, Deaney sends him a prostitute named Greta (Linda Evans).  Mitchell doesn’t have any problem having sex with Greta but he does have a problem with her smoking grass.  After spending two nights with her, he hauls her off to jail for possession because the only intoxicant that Mitchell needs is Schlitz beer.

Eventually, both Deaney and Cummings get tired to being harrassed by this slob so they team up to kill him.  This leads to both a dune buggy accident that has to be seen to be believed and an exciting helicopter chase.

Mitchell is best-known for having been featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Everyone remembers Joel and the bots making savage fun of Joe Don Baker and commenting on the plot’s incoherence.  What is less well-known is that the version that was shown on MST 3K was a heavily edited version that was missing some key scenes.  Earlier today, I watched the unedited version of Mitchell.  It’s still pretty bad but the plot does make slightly more sense.  In the unedited version, we actually learn why John Saxon just vanishes from the movie and we also see the end result of Mitchell’s final confrontation with Cummings, instead of just cutting away.  Even more importantly, in the unedited version, we discover that Mitchell spends the entire movie being threatened, abused, and insulted.  It makes it easier to understand why he’s in such a terrible mood throughout the entire film.  The unedited version of Mitchell is not much better than the edited version but it is a tougher and more violent film in every way.

Mitchell is usually described as being a take on Dirty Harry but it’s actually more of a French Connection rip-off.  The slovenly Mitchell has more in common with the erratic Popeye Doyle than with the cool and collected Harry Callahan.  Unfortunately, Mitchell doesn’t have any scenes that can compare to the chase scene from The French Connection nor does it have that film’s gritty, semi-documentary tone.  Whereas Doyle and Callahan got results through being smart along with being tough (Dirty Harry, for instance, goes out of its way to show that Callahan is dogged investigator and not just a trigger-happy cop), Mitchell just annoys people until they try to kill him.

For all the shit that Joe Don Baker has taken for starring in Mitchell, his performance is not that bad.  He’s convincing as a borderline fascist cop who doesn’t get much sleep and who doesn’t trust anyone.  It’s just that Mitchell, as written, is never a likable hero.  Instead, he’s the type of hero who busts his girlfriend because she has a tiny amount of grass in her purse.  Of the villains, John Saxon is believably sleazy as Deaney but Martin Balsam sleep walks through his role as Cummings and, even in the unedited version, his plan never makes much sense.  Balsam and Saxon should switched roles.

Finally, no review of Mitchell would be complete with including the lyrics of the haunting Mitchell theme song, sung by Hoyt Axton:

“My my my my Mitchell
What do your Mama say?
What would she do
if she knew you
were fallin’ round and carryin’ on that way…
Crackin’ some heads, jumpin’ in and out of beds
and hangin’ round the criminal scene…
Do you think you are some kind of a star like the guys on the movie screen…

Well oh my my my Mitchell
What would your captain say?
If he knew you was hangin’ round
Eatin’ with the crooks and shootin’ up the town
Know you been out there, roundin’ up the syndicate
succeedin’ where the others have failed
Oh my my my Mitchell
You shoot ’em just to get ’em in jail
When they take a look in the record book, they’ll find you got a lot of class…

The whole shebang, arrestin’ painted ladies for a little grass
Oh my my my Mitchell!”

“Mitchell!”

The cover of the unedited Mitchell DVD features Joe Don Baker from Walking Tall, Linda Evans from Dynasty, and a publicity still of John Saxon. Martin Balsam, however, does appear to have been taken from the film.

The Swiss Conspiracy (1976, directed by Jack Arnold)


In The Swiss Conspiracy, David Janssen growls his way through another international crime thriller.

Janssen plays David Christopher, a former Treasury agent who is now living in Geneva.  When a Swiss bank is contacted by blackmailers who threaten to reveal the secret account numbers of some of its most prominent and unsavory clients, the bank’s president, Johann Hurtill (Ray Milland), hires Christopher to find out who is behind the plot.  Unfortunately, one of the account holders is a U.S. gangster named Robert Hayes (John Saxon, naturally) and he’s not happy about having to work with a former fed.

With The Swiss Conspiracy, you know what you’re getting into the minute that the film opens with a narrator giving a lengthy explanation about how Swiss bank accounts work.  This is one of those 70s thriller where the budget is low, the plot is often nonsense, and the entire cast seems to be more interested in hitting the slopes than actually making a convincing movie.  The cast is full of familiar actors who, at the time of filming, had seen better days.  Along with Ray Milland, John Ireland, Anton Diffring, and Elke Sommer all have small roles while “German screen sensation” Senta Berger is cast as the woman who might be in love with David Christopher.  Martin Landau is not in this movie but it certainly feels like he should have been.

David Janssen made a lot of movies like this in the 70s.  Janssen was a good actor and he was especially skilled at playing grizzled tough guys but in The Swiss Conspiracy, he seems to be more interested in checking out the sights than in anything else.  You can’t really blame him because the film was shot on location in Zurich and the local scenery is always more interesting than anything else that’s happening on screen.

The Swiss Conspiracy was directed by Jack Arnold, a veteran B-movie director who was also did The Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man.  His direction in The Swiss Conspiracy is workmanlike and undistinguished but he does make great use of the locations.  The Swiss Conspiracy may not be a great movie but I’ll damned if I don’t want to hop on the next plane and head to Switzerland for the week.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt. 22: Winter Under the Stars


cracked rear viewer

I haven’t done one of these posts in a while, and since my DVR is heading towards max capacity, I’m way overdue! Everyone out there in classic film fan land knows about TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars”, right? Well, consider this my Winter version, containing a half-dozen capsule reviews of some Hollywood star-filled films of the past!

PLAYMATES (RKO 1941; D: David Butler ) – That great thespian John Barrymore’s press agent (Patsy Kelly) schemes with swing band leader Kay Kyser’s press agent (Peter Lind Hayes) to team the two in a Shakespearean  festival! Most critics bemoan the fact that this was Barrymore’s final film, satirizing himself and hamming it up mercilessly, but The Great Profile, though bloated from years of alcohol abuse and hard living, seems to be enjoying himself in this fairly funny but minor screwball comedy with music. Lupe Velez livens things up as Barrymore’s spitfire…

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Horror Film Review: Blood Beach (dir by Jeffrey Bloom)


“Nom nom nom nom,” says that monster under the sand.

“Agck!  Agck!  Agck!  Agck!” says the people above the sand.

And that’s all you really need to know about the 1981 film, Blood Beach.

Blood Beach takes place on a beach that also happens to be a hunting ground for this mutated worm thing that lives underground.  Basically, whenever anyone takes a stroll on the beach, they get sucked down into the sand and, for the most part, they’re never seen again.  Sometimes that’s not a bad thing, as in the case of a wannabe rapist who ends up getting castrated while being pulled down into the sand.  But, far too often, the victims are innocent people who were just walking their dog, chasing after their hat, or searching for buried treasure.

The beach becomes so well-known for being a death trap that the locals start to call it Blood Beach but, for some reason, that doesn’t seem to stop people from wandering out on the sand at inopportune times.  I mean, it would just seem logical to me that if there’s a monster killing people on the beach then maybe it would be a good idea to avoid the beach for a while.  I mean, you could go see a movie or you could lay out and work on your tan in your back yard.  Believe it or not, you do have the option of not going to a monster-infested location.

Strangely, there’s one person who is always on the beach but never gets killed.  That’s Mrs. Selden (Eleanor Zee), a somewhat odd woman who always seems to be nearby whenever someone is getting dragged into the sand but who never gets attacked herself.  Interestingly, Mrs. Selden never seems to be particularly concerned by all the carnage around her.  (One victim is even killed while specifically checking to make sure Mrs. Selden is okay.)  I kept expecting some sort of major twist where it was revealed that Mrs. Selden was a witch or something but it never happened.

Now, you would think that the presence of an underground monster would be the perfect excuse to call in the national guard but instead, the local police (led by John Saxon’s Captain Pearson) handle it.  Sgt. Royko (Burt Young) heads up the monster investigation, which in this film means that he kinda of stumbles from scene-to-scene, never looking particularly impressed by or interesting in anything that’s happening around him.  If anything, Royko seems to be annoyed that he’s having to give up time that he could be using to drink beer and watch TV and that attitude makes Royke the hero of this film.  Forget the scientist who wants to understand where the monster came from.  Forget the habor cop who wants to rekindle things with an old flame.  Royko doesn’t care about science or love.  He just wants to blow stuff up, which makes him the perfect audience surrogate

Anyway, Blood Beach sounds like it should be a fun movie but it’s not.  The movie delivers a lot of beach but very little blood.  There’s a lot of “nom nom” but very little “agck!”  Blood Beach is almost as much of a misfire as spending spring break in West Texas.

Horror Movie Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street (dir by Wes Craven)


Damn, this is a scary movie.

That may seem like an obvious point to make when talking about the original A Nightmare On Elm Street but it’s still one that needs to be made.  I always seem to forget just how scary the original is.  I mean, there’s been so many sequels.  And there was that kind of silly movie where Freddy Krueger fought Jason Vooerhees.  And then there was the fairly forgettable reboot.  Freddy Krueger is something of a cultural icon.  Even people who have never watched any of the movies knows who Freddy Krueger is.  Freddy has become so well-known for his quips and his puns and his bad jokes that it’s easy to forget that the reason he put razors on his gloves was so he could kill children.

Despite the fact that Jackie Earle Haley took over the role in the reboot, Freddy Krueger will always be associated with the actor who first played him, Robert Englund.  What’s interesting is that, whenever you watch or read an interview with Englund, he comes across as being literally the nicest guy in the world.  (His autobiography is one of the most cheerful Hollywood memoirs that I’ve ever read.)  Before he was cast as Freddy, Englund was a fairly busy character actor.  It’s always a little odd when he pops up in some old movie on TCM because, inevitably, he’s always seems to be playing a nice and often kinda shy guy.  Supposedly, when Englund auditioned for the role of Freddy, he darkened his lower eyelids with cigarette ash and he purposefully said very little while meeting with director Wes Craven.  Craven, who based Freddy Krueger on a childhood bully, was impressed enough to cast this very likable actor as one of the most evil killers in the history of horror cinema.

And make no mistake about it.  In the first film, Freddy Krueger is terrifying.  He’s not the joker that he would become in later installments of the franchise. When he does laugh, it’s because he’s taunting his latest victim.  This Freddy isn’t quite as quick-witted as the Freddy who showed up in Dream Warriors and other films.  This Freddy keeps things simple, popping up in your nightmares, chasing you, and, once he catches you, killing you.  It’s not just his glove and his burned faced that makes Freddy terrifying in this film.  It’s how determined and relentless he is.  He’s not going to stop until he catches you and, seeing as how he’s already dead, there’s really not much you can do to slow him down.  Englund plays Freddy as being the ultimate bully.  The only joy he gets is from tormenting the rest of us.  It’s a testament to the strength of Englund’s performance that memories of Freddy dominate our thoughts when it comes to A Nightmare of Elm Street, despite the fact that Freddy is only onscreen for seven minutes.

It’s an effective film, not just because of the nightmare scenes but also because of the scenes that take place in the waking world.  The majority of the film follows Nancy (Heather Langenkamp), Glen (Johnny Depp), Tina (Amanda Wyss), and Rod (Jsu Garcia, who is credited as Nick Corri in this film) as they try not to die.  And let’s be honest.  None of these characters are particularly deep.  Rod’s the bad boy.  Tina’s the rebellious Catholic.  Glen’s the nice guy.  Nancy’s the good girl.  They’re archetypes that should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a slasher film.  And yet, you really do care about them, especially Nancy and Glen.  (Admittedly, everyone that I’ve ever talked to about this film seems to care about Rod the least.)  Langenkamp, Depp, and Wyss all give such likable performances that you really do find yourself worrying about what will happen to them when and if they fall asleep.

I rewatched A Nightmare on Elm Street last night and I was shocked to discover that, even though I knew what was coming, the movie still scared me.  The sight of Freddy straining against the wall over Nancy’s head was still unbelievably creepy.  The gory scene where Freddy attacks Tina still frightened me, as did the famous geyser of blood scene.  Even the much-parodied scene where Freddy’s glove rises up between Nancy’s legs while she sleeps in the bathtub still made me shudder.

It’s easy to take for granted just how good and scary the original Nightmare on Elm Street actually is.  For horror fans, it’s a film that deserves to be watched this October season.  Just don’t fall asleep afterwards.