Film Review: Deadly Hero (dir by Ivan Nagy)

First released in 1975, Deadly Hero tells the story of Edward Lacy (Don Murray).

Lacy is an 18-year veteran of the New York Police Department and a proud family man.  Lacy is clean-cut, handsome in a blandly pleasant way, and he has a wife and several children.  He’s a member of the Knights of Columbus and there are times when he imagines himself pursuing a career in politics.  One of the first things that we see Lacy do is introduce an anti-crime mayoral candidate named Reilly (George S. Irving) at a Knights of Columbus rally.  Lacy goes out of his way to make sure that he and his family make a good impression but Reilly barely seems to notice him.

Lacy is also a racist who enjoys pulling and using his gun.  He was once a detective but a long string of brutality complaints has led to him being demoted back down to being a patrolman.  He and his partner (Treat Williams, making his film debut) spend their time patrolling the streets of New York City, getting dirty looks and verbal abuse from the people who they are supposed to be protecting.  Much like Travis Bickle in the following year’s Taxi Driver, Lacy obsesses on the crime and the decay that he sees all around him.

Sally (Diahn Williams) lives a life that is a hundred times different from Lacy’s.  She’s a cellist and a conductor.  She spends her days teaching and her nights conducting at an avant-garde theater.  Sally and Lacy have little in common but their lives become intertwined when Sally is attacked and briefly held hostage by a mentally disturbed mugger named Rabbit (James Earl Jones).  Responding to a call put in by Sally’s neighbor (Lila Skala), Lacy discovers Rabbit holding a knife to Sally’s throat in the hallway of Sally’s apartment building.  At first, Lacy handles the situation calmly and he manages to talk Rabbit into not only releasing Sally but also dropping his knife.  However, instead of arresting the now unarmed and docile Rabbit, Lacy shoots and kills him.

Knowing that he’s about to be investigated and that he’s made enemies in the department due to his political activities, Lacy convinces the still-shocked Sally to lie and say that she witnessed Rabbit lunging for Lacy’s gun before Lacy fired.  Lacy is proclaimed a hero and soon, Reilly is inviting him to appear at rallies with him.  Lacy’s political dreams seem to be coming true but Sally starts to feel guilty about lying.  Realizing that Sally is planning on revealing the truth about what happened, Lacy goes to extreme measures to try to keep her quiet.

Deadly Hero is an interesting film, one that is certainly flawed but which ultimately works as a portrait of the authoritarian mindset.  Ivan Nagy directs without much visual flair and, especially at the start of the film, he struggles to maintain a consistent pace.  For instance, the scene where Rabbit initially menaces Sally seems to go on forever, long beyond whatever was necessary to convince the audience that Rabbit was a dangerous guy.  (With the amount of time that Nagy lingers over shots of Sally being menaced by Rabbit, I was not surprised to read that Nagy and Dianh Williams apparently did not get along during filming.)  That said, the film’s low budget actually works to its advantage, with the grainy cinematography giving the film a gritty, documentary feel.  The film was shot on location in New York City and it’s interesting to watch the actors interact with real New Yorkers.  While Lacy is never a sympathetic character, seeing the actual streets of New York does go a long way to explaining why he’s so paranoid.  This is one of the many 70s films in which the overriding message seemed to be that New York City was the worst place on the planet.

The film is dominated by Don Murray, who plays Lacy as being a blue-collar fascist who has learned how to hide his anger and his hatred behind a quick smile and an outwardly friendly manner.  Feeling confident that everyone will back him up, he has no hesitation about executing an unarmed black man.  Even when it becomes obvious that Sally is not going to continue to lie about what happened, Lacy is still arrogant enough to assume that he can charm her into changing her mind.  When that doesn’t work, Lacy becomes increasingly unhinged and vindictive.  The film’s final ambiguous image suggests that there really is no way to escape the Edward Lacys of the world.

With its portrayal of a violent cop who is convinced that he will be protected by the system, Deadly Hero feels extremely relevant today.  Of course, Deadly Hero also suggests that the same system that Lacy is exploiting can be used to take him down, with Lacy eventually being investigated by both Internal Affairs and the District Attorney’s office.  The film leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not the rest of the police are as dangerous as Lacy.  Is Lacy a product of the system or is he just someone who has figured out how to exploit the system?  To its detriment, that’s a question that the film doesn’t answer.  Still, much like Harvey Hart’s similarly underappreciated Shoot, Deadly Hero is an always-interesting and occasionally insightful look at the authoritarian mindset.

The Unnominated: Star 80 (dir by Bob Fosse)

Though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences claim that the Oscars honor the best of the year, we all know that there are always worthy films and performances that end up getting overlooked.  Sometimes, it’s because the competition too fierce.  Sometimes, it’s because the film itself was too controversial.  Often, it’s just a case of a film’s quality not being fully recognized until years after its initial released.  This series of reviews takes a look at the films and performances that should have been nominated but were,for whatever reason, overlooked.  These are the Unnominated.

First released in 1983, Star 80 is an examination of fame, obsession, misogyny, and finally madness.  All four of those qualities are exemplified in the character of Paul Snider (Eric Roberts), a man with a charming smile, a ludicrous wardrobe, and the personality of a pimp.  When we first see Paul Snider, he’s naked and he’s covered in blood and he’s ranting about how the world is trying to destroy him.  Even if he wasn’t holding a rifle, he would be terrifying.  Suddenly, we flash back to a few years earlier.  Snider is being dangled out a window by two men.  Snider pathetically begs to be pulled back into the room.  The men laugh at him before pulling him up.  Snider, looking fairly ridiculous in a cheap suit that he probably thinks makes him look like a celebrity, fights off tears as he says he deserves to be treated with dignity.

Star 80 is based on a true story.  Mariel Hemingway plays Dorothy Stratten, the actress and Playboy playmate who was murdered by Paul Snider.  Snider, who often claimed credit for having “made” Dorothy, was married to her at the time, though Dorothy had filed for divorce and was dating director Peter Bogdanovich.  Unwilling to let her go and return to being a small-time hustler, Snider shot Dorothy and then himself.  Director Bob Fosse, who was best known for directing musicals like Cabaret and All That Jazz, was attracted to the story because he understood that type of world that produces sleazes like Paul Snider.  According to Eric Robets, Fosse even said that he probably would have ended up like Paul Snider if not for his talent.

Snider, the film quickly establishes, really doesn’t have any talent beyond the ability to manipulate people who are too naïve to see through his bullshit.  Snider wants to be a star.  He wants to be rich.  He wants people to kiss his ass.  When he meets Dorothy, he sees her as his ticket.  Dorothy’s mother (a poignant performance from Carroll Baker) sees straight through him from the start.  Tragically, Dorothy doesn’t realize the truth abut who he is until they’re already in Hollywood.  As Dorothy tries to break away from him, Paul desperately tries to find some sort of success, all the while complaining that the world is conspiring to keep him from being a man. 

Eric Roberts dominates the film and it’s one of the scariest performances that I’ve ever seen.  Roberts is convincing when he’s ranting and raving against the world that he feels is against him but what’s even more disturbing is that he’s convincing when he’s turning on the charm.  Paul Snider may not be smart.  Paul Snider may not be talented.  But he know how to gaslight.  He knows how to destroy someone’s fragile confidence, largely because his own confidence has been shattered so many times that he’s become an expert in exploiting insecurity.  Snider is a tacky dresser and nowhere near as smooth as he thinks but, intentionally or not, he uses that to his advantage.  He tries so hard to impress that it’s easy to see how someone could feel sorry for him and want to help him.  However, because Fosse lets us know from the start what Snider is really going on inside of Sinder’s head, we never make the mistake of trusting him.  We know who Paul Snider is because we’ve all known a Paul Snider.

Eric Roberts’s performance is so intense that it’s unfortunate but not surprising that it was overlooked at the 1983 Oscars.  He was playing a truly repellent character and he did it so convincingly that I imagine many viewers had a hard time realizing that Eric Roberts was not Paul Snider but was instead an actor playing a terrible character.  Some probably said, “Why should we honor such a loathsome character?” and again, the answer is because there are many Paul Sniders out there.  Roberts captured much more than just one man’s breakdown.  He captured a sickness at the heart of a fame-driven culture.

Of course, Paul Snider was not the only symptom of that sickness to be depicted in Star 80.  Every man that Dorothy either uses her in some way or just views her as being a commodity.  Hugh Hefner (Cliff Robertson) presents himself as being a fatherly mentor but Robertson plays him as being just as manipulative and ultimately narcissistic as Paul Snider.  Director Aram Nicholas (Roger Rees, playing a character based on Peter Bogdanovich) seems to love Dorothy but their relationship still feels out-of-balance.  Aram, afterall, is the director while Dorothy is the actress.  The private detective (Josh Mosel) that Paul hires to spy on Dorothy seems to have no lingering guilty over the role he played.  Even Snider’s roommate (David Clennon) is more interested in talking about his dog and his car then about the murder/suicide of two people with whom he lived.

It’s a dark film and not one to be watched when depressed.  At the same time, it’s a portrait of obsessiveness, misogyny, and an overwhelming need to be “someone” that still feels relevant today.  Along with Sweet Charity, it was the only Bob Fosse film not to be nominated for Best Picture.  (This was back when there were only five best picture nominees.  Three of the nominated films — Terms of Endearment, Tender Mercies, and The Right Stuff — hold up well.  Two of the nominees — The Dresser and The Big Chill — are a bit more iffy.)  Eric Roberts was not nominated for the best performance of his career.  Again, it’s a shame but not a surprise.  This was a dark and disturbing film, a true Hollywood horror story.  One imagines that most members of the Academy wanted to escape it far more than they wanted to honor and be reminded of it.

Previous entries in The Unnominated:

  1. Auto Focus 

You Have To Pay The Bills Somehow: The Maddening (1995, directed by Danny Huston)

Because her husband’s a dick who spends too much time working and not enough time taking the day off, Cassie (Mia Sara) grabs her five year-old daughter, Samantha (Kayla Buglewicz) and heads off for her sister’s house.  When Cassie stops at a gas station to fill up the car, she’s spotted by seedy Roy Scudder (Burt Reynolds!).  Roy puts down his cigar long enough to tamper with her car.  When it breaks down a few miles down the role, Roy drives up and offers Cassie and Samantha a ride back to his place, where he can fix her car or where she can at least call for hep.  Not realizing that she’s in a direct-to-video horror movie, Cassie accepts.

Big mistake!  Roy’s wife, Georgina (Angie Dickinson!), has not been the same since the mysterious death of her son and Georgina and Roy’s other child, Jill (Candace Huston, daughter of the film’s director and granddaughter of John Huston), needs a playmate.  Roy has decided that Samantha fits the bill.  Cassie is locked in a room while Samantha is turned into Jill’s slave and Roy deals with the angry ghost of his abusive father (William Hickey!).

You have to feel bad for Burt Reynolds.  He made this film at a time when his career was in decline.  His TV show was no longer on the air.  Boogie Nights was still two years away.  The man had bills to pay.  Can you blame Burt for accepting any role that came his way, especially if it meant a chance to co-star with Angie Dickinson and be directed by the son of John Huston?  Reynolds was famous for hating even his good films so you can only imagine what he must have thought about The Maddening.  Fortunately, since Burt was playing a total psycho in The Maddening, he could at least channel his feeling into the role.  Throughout ever minute of The Maddening, Burt is totally and thoroughly unhinged and angry in the way that only the former number one star in America could be upon having to settle for a role in a direct-to-video horror film.  He yells at his ghost father.  He slits throats.  He beats people into unconsciousness.  He does everything that a normal movie psycho does but, when he does it, it’s even more memorable because he’s Burt Reynolds.  Burt and Angie Dickinson playing the type of role that Bette Davis would have played for Robert Aldrich in the 60s are not just the main reasons to watch this movie.  They’re the only reasons.

This was Burt’s only horror film and it’s too bad that it couldn’t have been a better one.  But if it helped Burt keep the lights on during the lean years of the early 90s, good.

A Movie A Day #350: The Chase (1994, directed by Adam Rifkin)

Why so serious?

Jack Hammond (Charlie Sheen) was just an innocent clown who worked birthday parties.  Then he was mistaken for an outlaw clown and was accused of a crime that he did not commit.  When police incompetence led to the only piece of evidence that could exonerate him being tossed out of court, Jack had no choice but to go on the run.  Now, he’s in a stolen car, being pursued by not just the cops but also the tabloid media, and he’s got a hostage.  Natalie Voss (Kristy Swanson) turns out to be a willing hostage, though.  She is the daughter of Dalton Voss (Ray Wise, playing a character who is literally described as being “the Donald Trump of California) and what better way to act out against her father than to fall in love with her kidnapper and help him as he tries to reach the Mexican border?

What’s this?

A good Charlie Sheen movie that was not directed by Oliver Stone or John Milius?

It’s a Christmas miracle!

Actually, it may be misleading to say that The Chase is good..  By most of the standards used to judge whether or not a film qualifies as being good, The Chase fails.  There’s no real character development.  The plot is as simplistic as a plot can be.  A good deal of the movie could be correctly described as stupid.  But The Chase has got to be one of the most entertainingly stupid movies ever made.  It is about as basic an action comedy as has ever been made.  Almost the entire movie takes place on highway, with jokes mixed in with spectacular car crashes and only-in-the-90s cameos from Flea, Anthony Kiedis, and Ron Jeremy.  The pace never lets up, Kristy Swanson again shows that she deserved a better film career than she got, and Henry Rollins plays a cop.  As for Charlie Sheen, he basically plays the same character that he always plays but at least, when The Chase was made, he was still putting a little effort into it.  Maybe because they had already previously worked together in Hot Shots!, Sheen and Swanson have an easy rapport and make even the worse jokes sound passably funny.

The Chase may not be great and it really would have been improved by cameos from Burt Reynolds and Judd Nelson but it’s still damn entertaining.

Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (dir by Norman Jewison)

The 1973 film, Jesus Christ Superstar, opens with a desert in Israel.  All is still.  All is quiet.  Suddenly, we see a cloud of dust in the distance.  A bus is speeding through the desert and the music on the soundtrack explodes with a sudden urgency.

The bus comes to a stop and we notice that there’s a big cross tied to the top of it.  The doors open and suddenly — oh my God, it’s hundreds of hippies!  American hippies In Israel!  They’re climbing off the bus, one after another.  Some of them are being tossed sub machine guns.  Another gets a whip.  One of them puts on a purple robe and looks like he is slightly disturbed.  Others are dressed in black.  Makeup is applied.  Everyone’s having a great time.  One heavy-set fellow, with frizzy hair, climbs to the top of the bus and sits down on a throne.  He watches as everyone else pulls down the cross.  One long-haired man, who was never seen leaving the bus, is suddenly among the hippies.  He’s dressed in white and everyone is suddenly bowing before him.

Well, almost everyone.  One of the bus’s passengers, a serious-looking man (Carl Anderson), has walked away from the hippies.  From a safe distance, he looks back at them and he seems to be as confused by all of this as we are.

Why is everyone in the desert?  That’s relatively easy to explain.  They’re performing a Passion Play.  Carl Anderson is playing Judas.  The man in white is Ted Neeley.  Whether he is meant to be an actor playing Jesus or Jesus himself is a question that the movie leaves for you to decide.  We never see him get off the bus and, perhaps more importantly, we don’t see him get on the bus at the end.

(Just you watch.  I’ll mention that Jesus gets crucified at the end of this movie and someone will pop up in the comments and say, “How about a spoiler alert?”)

Hmmm…religion and hippies.  Those are two things that, in the past, I have definitely had issues with.  In fact, you would totally be justified in assuming that I would hate Jesus Christ Superstar.  And yet, I don’t.  I actually rather like it.

True, there are some things that make me cringe.  The sound of all the disciples singing, “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a happening?” always makes me shudder and say, “Oh my God, this is so 1973!”  A scene where Judas suddenly finds himself being chased through the desert by a modern tank is just a bit too on-the-nose.  Finally, I understand that Ted Neeley’s stage performance as Jesus is highly acclaimed but, to me, his performance in this film will always be known as the Screaming Jesus.  Too often, it’s obvious that Neeley is still performing as if he’s on stage and has to project to the back row.  It’s interesting to compare him to Carl Anderson, who also played Judas on stage but who, in the movie, gives a performance that is powerful specifically because it’s a cinematic performance, as opposed to a stage performance.

But, even with all that in mind, there’s so much about this movie that works.  Based on the rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar is definitely a product of its time, serving as a time machine for amateur historians like me.  (Then again, I guess you could say that about any movie the opens with hippies driving a school bus across Israel.)  Sometimes, the lyrics are a bit obvious but the songs still stick around in your head.  And it’s not just Carl Anderson who gives a good performance.  Yvonne Elliman, Josh Mostel, Bob Bingham, Larry Marshall, Barry Dennen — they all contribute strong work, both musically and otherwise.

And then there’s the big Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem production number:

There’s several reasons I love this scene but mostly it just comes down to the fact that it captures the explosive energy that comes from watching a live performance.  Larry Marshall (who plays Simon Zealotes) has one of the most fascinating faces that I’ve ever seen in a film and when he performs, he performs as if the fate of the entire world depends on it.  As previously stated, I’ve never been sold on Ted Neely’s performance as Jesus but Carl Anderson burns with charisma in the role of Judas.

Mostly, however, I just love the choreography and watching the dancers.  I guess that’s not that surprising considering just how important dance was (and still is, even if I’m now just dancing for fun) in my life but, to be honest, I’m probably one of the most hyper critical people out there when it comes to dance in film, regarding both the way that it’s often choreographed and usually filmed.  But this scene is probably about as close to perfect in both regards as I’ve ever seen.  It goes beyond the fact that the dancers obviously have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and that they all look good while dancing.  The great thing about the choreography in this scene is that it all feels so spontaneous.  There’s less emphasis on technical perfection and more emphasis on capturing emotion and thought through movement.  What I love is that the number is choreographed to make it appear as if not all of the dancers in this scene are on the exact same beat.  Some of them appear to come in a second or two late, which is something that would have made a lot of my former teachers and choreographers scream and curse because, far too often, people become so obsessed with technical perfection that they forget that passion is just as important as perfect technique.  (I’m biased, of course, because I’ve always been more passionate than perfect.)  The dancers in this scene have a lot of passion and it’s thrilling to watch.

Beyond that, there’s the insane burlesque of Josh Mostel’s performance as Herod and Barry Dennen’s neurotic interpretation of Pilate.  There’s Yvonne Elliman’s performance of I Don’t Know How To Love Him.  There’s that famous closing shot, a happy accident that was achieved when a shepherd just happened to wander past the camera.

And, of course, there’s this:

The performance above pretty much sums up the appeal of Jesus Christ Superstar.  It’s both ludicrous and powerful at the same time.

I know there’s some debate as to whether Jesus Christ Superstar is sincere or sacrilegious.  In college, there was this girl in my dorm who started the semester as a pagan, spent a month as an evangelical, and then ended the semester as a pagan again.  When she was going through her evangelical phase, she would listen to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack constantly.  Seriously.  24 hours a day.  7 days a week.  After three days, I was sick of hearing it.  I found myself wondering if anyone had ever been driven to murder over having to listen to Heaven On Their Minds one too many times.  Fortunately, something happened to cause her to once again lose her faith and she went back to listening to Fall Out Boy.

I don’t think that, as conceived by Rice and Lloyd Webber, Jesus Christ Superstar is in any way sacrilegious.  At the same time, it does have a potentially subversive streak to it.  This is especially true of the film version.  At times, director Norman Jewison seems to be almost deliberately parodying the excesses of more conventional religious films.  Instead of spending millions to recreate the ancient world, Jesus Christ Superstar uses ruins and desert.  Instead of featuring ornate costumes, Jesus Christ Superstar features Roman soldiers who wear pink tank tops.  Ultimately, Jesus Christ Superstar reveres Jesus but dismisses the conventions of both organized Christianity and epic filmmaking.  Judah Ben-Hur would not have known what to do with himself if he wandered onto the set of Jesus Christ Superstar.

It’s over the top, silly, ludicrous, and ultimately rather powerful.  Jesus Christ Superstar is a film that shouldn’t work and yet it does.

Insomnia File No. 19: Great Expectations (dir by Alfonso Cuaron)

What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If you were awake at 2 in the morning last night, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 1998 film, Great Expectations.

Great Expectations is an adaptation of the famous novel by Charles Dickens, the one about the orphan who helps a fugitive, is mentored by a bitter rich woman who lives in a decaying mansion, falls in love with the beautiful but cold-hearted Estella, and then later is helped out by a mysterious benefactor.  The thing that sets this adaptation apart from other version of the novel is that the 1998 Great Expectations is set in modern-day America, as opposed to Victorian-era Great Britain.

Actually, beyond retaining certain aspects of the plot, it’s interesting how little this version of Great Expectations has to do with the original novel.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  While Charles Dickens deserves to be remembered as one of the fathers of modern literature, he could also be a terribly pedantic writer.  This adaptation only touches on the novel’s overriding concerns about class and wealth in the most simplistic of ways.  It also abandons most of the novel’s subplots and instead concentrates on the love story between Estella (Gwynneth Paltrow) and Finn (Ethan Hawke).

Oh yeah, did I mention that?  The hero of this version of Great Expectations is not named Phillip Pirrip and we never have to listen to him explain that, as a child, he was nicknamed Pip because he apparently could not speak.  Instead, Pip has been renamed Finn, short for Finnegan.  If you believe the trivia section of the imdb, Finn was apparently the name of Ethan Hawke’s dog.  And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  One of the main reasons why so many readers automatically dislike the narrator of Great Expectations is that he is named Pip.

Anyway, in this version, Pip Finn grows up in Florida, an orphan who is raised by his blue-collar brother-in-law, Joe Gargery (Chris Cooper, giving a very Chris Cooperish performance).  The escaped convict is played by Robert De Niro and, towards the end of the film, there’s a hilarious scene where Finn and the convict meet for a second time and Finn somehow does not recognize him, despite the fact that he still pretty much looks the same and still acts exactly like Robert De Niro.  The eccentric woman who mentors the young Finn, Mrs. Havisham Dinsmoor, is played by Anne Bancroft and Bancroft, made up to look like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, gives a performance of almost transcendent weirdness.  And, of course, Estella — who has been raised to seduce and then destroy men — is played by Gwynneth Paltrow and, as usual, Paltrow is a lot more believable when Estella is remote and self-centered than when she has to soften up towards the end of the film.

It’s an odd film, to be honest.  This is one of those films that you watch and you try to be cynical but it’s all so lushly shot and deliriously (and manipulatively) romantic that you can’t help but occasionally get wrapped up in its spell.  Hawke and Paltrow, both of whom are incredibly young in this movie, may not have much chemistry but they’re both so achingly beautiful that it almost doesn’t matter.

Great Expectations was the second film to be directed by Alfonso Cuaron and it’s just as visually stylish as his later films.  It’s a frequently shallow and somewhat silly film but oh my God, is it ever pretty to look at.


Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong