A Movie A Day #251: Cisco Pike (1972, directed by Bill L. Norton)

Yesterday, the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton passed away at the age of 91.   Cisco Pike is not one of Stanton’s best films but it is a film that highlight why Stanton was such a compelling actor and why his unique presence will be missed.

Cisco Pike (Kris Kristofferson) is a musician who has fallen on hard time.  After having been busted several times for dealing drugs, Cisco now just wants to spend time with his “old lady” (Karen Black) and plot his comeback as a musician.  However, a corrupt narcotics detective, Leo Holland (Gene Hackman), approaches Cisco with an offer that he cannot refuse.  Holland has come into possession of 100 kilos of marijuana.  He wants Cisco to sell it for him and then Leo plans to take the money and retire.  Cisco has the weekend to sell all of the weed.  If he doesn’t, Holland will arrest him for dealing and sent him back to prison,

About halfway through this loose and improvisational look at dealers, hippies, and squares in 1970s Los Angeles, Harry Dean Stanton shows up in the role of Jesse Dupree, an old friend and former bandmate of Cisco’s.  Jesse is a free-living wanderer, too old to be a hippie but too unconventional to be a member of the establishment.  Unfortunately, Jesse also has a nasty heroin habit.  Jesse Dupree is a prototypical Harry Dean Stanton role.  Like many of Stanton’s best roles, Jesse may be sad and full of regrets but he is not going to let that keep him from enjoying life.  Stanton may not appear in much of the film but he still takes over every scene in which he appears.

Stanton is, by far, the best thing about Cisco Pike.  As always, Gene Hackman is entertaining, playing the inverse of The French Connection‘s Popeye Doyle and Karen Black is her usual mix of sexy and weird.  The weakest part of the movie is Kris Kristofferson, who was still a few years away from becoming a good actor when he starred in Cisco Pike.  It is interesting to consider how different Cisco Pike would have been if Stanton and Kristofferson had switched roles.  Stanton may not have had Kristofferon’s movie star looks but, unlike Kristofferson, he feels real in everything that he does.  With his air of resignation and his non-Hollywood persona, Stanton brought authenticity to not only Cisco Pike but to every film in which he appeared.

Along with Stanton, several other familiar faces appear in Cisco Pike.  Keep an eye out for Roscoe Lee Browne, Howard Hesseman, Viva, Allan Arbus, and everyone’s favorite spaced-out hippie chick, the one and only Joy Bang.

Shattered Politics #28: Maidstone (dir by Norman Mailer)

Rip Torn in Maidstone

Rip Torn in Maidstone

If you ever find yourself on the campus of the University of North Texas and you need to kill some time, stop by the UNT Library, go up to the second floor, find the biographies, and track down a copy of Peter Manso’s Mailer: His Life and Times.  

Back in December of 2007, at a time when I really should have been studying for my finals, I spent an entire afternoon in the library reading Manso’s book.  I didn’t know much about Norman Mailer, the Pulitzer prize-winning writer and occasional political candidate, beyond the fact that he died that previous November and that a lot of older people who I respected apparently thought highly of his work.  Though Manso’s book had been written 20 years earlier, it still provided an interesting portrait of the controversial author.  It was largely an oral history, full of interviews with people who had known Mailer over the years.  As I skimmed the book, it quickly became apparent that, among other things, Mailer was a larger-than-life figure.

For me, the book was at its most interesting when it dealt with Mailer’s attempts to be a filmmaker.  In the 1960s, Mailer directed three movies.  All three of them also starred Norman Mailer and featured his friends in supporting roles.  All three of them were largely improvised.  And, when released into theaters, all three of them were greeted with derision.

Maidstone, Mailer’s 3rd film, was filmed in 1970.  In the film, Mailer played Norman Kingsley, an avante garde film director who is running for President.  Over the course of one weekend, while also working on a movie about a brothel, Norman meets with potential supporters and debates the issues.  And, of course, shadowy figures plot to assassinate Norman, not so much because they don’t want him to be President as much as they want him to be a martyr for their vaguely defined cause.

Just based on what I read in Manso’s book, it’s hard not to feel that the making of Maidstone could itself be the basis of a good movie.  Mailer essentially invited all of his friends to his estate and they spent 5 days filming, with no script. It was five days of drinking, drugs, and bad feelings.

At one point, actor and painter Herve Villechaize (who would later play Knick Knack in The Man With The Golden Gun) got so drunk and obnoxious that he was picked up by actor Rip Torn and literally tossed over a fence.  The unconscious Villechaize ended up floating face down in a neighbor’s pool.  After fishing Villechaize out of the pool, the neighbor tossed him back over the fence and shouted, “Norman, come get your dwarf!”

Eventually, after five days, filming fell apart.  Some members of the cast were okay with that.  And one most definitely was not..

Fortunately, Maidstone is currently available on YouTube so I watched it last night.  Unfortunately, the film itself is never as interesting as the stories about what went on behind the cameras.  Maidstone is essentially scene after scene of people talking and the effectiveness of each scene depends on who is in it.  For instance, Norman’s half-brother is played by Rip Torn, a professional actor with a big personality.  The scenes with Torn are interesting to watch because Rip Torn is always interesting to watch.  However, other scenes feature people who were clearly cast because they happened to be visiting the set on that particular day.  And these scenes are boring because, quite frankly, most people are boring.

And then you’ve got Norman Mailer himself.  For an acclaimed writer who was apparently quite a celebrity back in the day, it’s amazing just how little screen presence Norman Mailer had as an actor.  Preening for the camera, standing around shirtless and showing off his hairy back along with his middle-aged man boobs, Mailer comes across as being more than a little pathetic.  He’s at his worst whenever he tries to talk to a woman, giving off a vibe that’s somewhere between creepy uncle and super veiny soccer dad having a midlife crisis.

It’s an uneven film but, for the first half or so, it’s at least interesting as a time capsule.  For those of us who want to know what rich intellectuals were like in the late 60s, Maidstone provides a service.  However, during the second half of the film, it becomes obvious that Mailer got bored.  Suddenly, all pretense towards telling an actual story are abandoned and the film becomes about Mailer asking his cast for their opinion about what they’ve filmed so far.

And then, during the final 15 minutes of the film, Norman Mailer decides to have the cameramen film him as he plays with his wife and children.  This is apparently too much for Rip Torn who, after spending an eternity glaring at Mailer and undoubtedly thinking about everything he could have been doing during those five day if he hadn’t been filming Maidstone, walks up to Mailer, says, “You must die, Kingsley,” and then hits Mailer on the head with a hammer.

This, of course, leads to a long wrestling match between Mailer and Torn and, as the cameras roll, blood is spilled and insults are exchanged.  There’s a lot of differing opinions about whether this final fight was spontaneous or staged.  Having seen the footage, I get the impression that Mailer was caught off guard but that Torn probably let the cameraman know what he was going to do ahead of time.

Regardless, it’s hard to deny that the pride of Temple, Texas, Elmore “Rip” Torn, appears to be the one who came out on top.  After the fight, Mailer and Torn have a lengthy argument that amounts to Rip saying that he had to do it because it was the only way that the film would make sense while Mailer replies with some of the least imaginative insults ever lobbed by a Pulitzer winner.

(So basically, Rip Torn won both the physical and the verbal rounds of the fight.)

Anyway, you can watch the entire Rip Torn/Norman Mailer confrontation below.

Now, while the fight is really the only must-see part of Maidstone, it still has considerable value as a time capsule of the time when it was made.  You can watch it below!

Back to School #10: Pretty Maids All In A Row (dir by Roger Vadim)

Pretty Maids All In A Row, which — as should be pretty obvious from the trailer above — was originally released in 1971, is a bit of a historic film for me.  You see, I love movies.  And, as a part of that love, I usually don’t give up.  Regardless of how bad a movie may turn out to be, once I start watching, I stick with it.  I do not give up.  I keep watching because you never know.  The film could suddenly get better.  It could turn out that what originally seemed like a misfire was actually brilliant satire.  If you’re going to talk or write about movies, you have an obligation to watch the entire movie.  That was a rule that I had always lived by.

And then, one night, Pretty Maids All In A Row popped up on TCM.

Now, I have to admit that I already knew that Pretty Maids was going to be an extremely 70s film.  I knew that it was probably going to be more than a little sexist.  I knew all of this because the above trailer was included on one of my 42nd Street Forever DVDs.  But I still wanted to see Pretty Maids because the trailer hinted that there might be an interesting hiding underneath all of the cultural baggage.  If nothing else, it appeared that it would have some sort of worth as an artifact of its time.

(If you’re a regular reader of this site, you know how much I love my cinematic time capsules.)

So, the film started.  I logged onto twitter so that I could live tweet the film, using the hashtag #TCMParty.  And from the moment the film started, I knew it wasn’t very good.  It wasn’t just that the film’s camerawork and music were all extremely 70s.  After all, I like 70s music.  I don’t mind the occasional zoom lens.  And random psychedelic sequences?  WHO DOESN’T LOVE THOSE!?  No, my dislike of the film had nothing to do with the film’s style.  Instead, it had to do with the fact that there was absolutely nothing going on behind all of that style.  It wasn’t even style for the sake of style (which is something that I usually love).  Instead, it was style for the sake of being like every other “youth film” that came out in the 70s.


And then there was the film’s plot, which should have been interesting but wasn’t because director Roger Vadim (who specialized in stylish decadence) had no interest in it.  The film takes place at Oceanfront High School, where the only rule is that apparently nobody is allowed to wear a bra.  We meet one student, Ponce De Leon Harper (played by an amazingly unappealing actor named John David Carson), who is apparently on the verge of having a nervous breakdown because, at the height of the sexual revolution, he’s still a virgin.

(Because, of course, the whole point of the sexual revolution was for losers like Ponce to finally be able to get laid…)

Ponce is taken under the wing of high school guidance counselor Tiger McDrew (Rock Hudson, complete with porn star mustache).  Quickly figuring out exactly what Ponce needs, Tiger sets him up with a teacher played by Angie Dickinson.  However, Tiger has other concerns than just Ponce.  Tiger, it turns out, is a sex addict who is sleeping with nearly every female student at the school. But, American society is so oppressive and puts so much pressure on the American male that Tiger has no choice but to kill every girl that he sleeps with…

This is one of the only film I can think of that not only makes excuses for a serial killer but also presents him as being a heroic  character.  And, while it’s tempting to think that the film is being satirical in its portrayal of Tiger and his murders, it’s actually not.  Don’t get me wrong.  The film is a very broad comedy.  The high school’s principal (Roddy McDowall) is more concerned with the football team than with all of the girls turning up dead at the school.  The local sheriff (Keenan Wynn) is a buffoon.  The tough detective (Telly Savalas) who investigates the murders gets a few one liners.

But Tiger, most assuredly, is the film’s hero.  He’s the only character that the audience is expected to laugh with, as opposed to at.  He is the character who is meant to serve as a mouthpiece for screenwriter Gene Roddenberry’s view on America’s puritanical culture.  If only society was less hung up on sex, Tiger wouldn’t have to kill.  Of course, the film’s celebration of Tiger’s attitude towards sex is not extended towards the girls who sleep with him.  Without an exception, they are all presented as being empty-headed, demanding, shallow, and annoying, worthy only of being leered at by Vadim’s camera until Tiger finally has to do away with them.

(The film’s attitude towards women makes Getting Straight look positively enlightened.)

Rock and Angie

Rock and Angie

ANYWAY!  I spent about 40 minutes watching this movie before I gave up on it.  Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I gave up after 5 minutes.  But I stuck with it for another 35 minutes, waiting to see if the film was going to get any better.  It didn’t and finally, I had to ask myself, “Why am I actually sitting here and wasting my time with this misogynistic bullshit?”  So, I stopped watching and I did so with no regrets.

What I had forgotten is that I had set the DVR to record the film while I was watching it, just in case I later decided to review it.  So, last week, as I was preparing for this series of Back to School posts, I saw Pretty Maids All In A Row on my DVR.  I watched the final 51 minutes of the film, just to see if it ever got better.  It didn’t.

However, on the plus side, Rock Hudson does give a good performance in the role of Tiger, bringing a certain seedy desperation to the character.  (I’m guessing that this desperation was Hudson’s own contribution and not an element of Roddenberry’s screenplay, which more or less presents Tiger as being a Nietzschean superman.).  And beyond that, Pretty Maids serves as evidence as to just how desperate the Hollywood studios were to makes movies that would be weird enough to appeal to young people in the early 70s.

Watching the film, you can practically hear the voices of middle-aged studio executives.

“What the Hell are we trying to do with this movie!?” one of the voices says.

“Who cares!?” the other voice replies, “the kids will love it!”


Horror On The Lens: Messiah of Evil (dir by Willard Huyck)

MOE Mariana HillWith only five days left until Halloween, I wanted to make sure that I shared this film with our faithful and wonderful readers.  Messiah of Evil was first released in 1973 and, since it’s in the public domain, it has since been included in a countless number of bargain box sets from Mill Creek.

I can still remember the first time that I saw Messiah of Evil.  It was way back in 2009, when I was living in my first apartment.  I had recently picked up a 10-movie DVD box set called Tales of Terror and I was using the movies inside to try to deal with a bout of insomnia.  I had already watched The Hatchet Murders (a.k,a. Deep Red) and The House At The Edge of the Park and, at two in the morning, I was faced with a decision.  Should I try to sleep or should I watch one more movie?

Naturally, I chose to watch one more movie and the movie I chose was Messiah of Evil.  So, there I was at two in the morning, sitting up in bed in my bra and panties and watching an obscure horror movie while rain fell outside.

And, seriously — this movie totally FREAKED me out!

Messiah of Evil tells the story of Arletty (Marianna Hill), a neurotic woman who drives to an isolated California town in order to visit her father.  Her father is an artist who specializes in painting eerie pictures of large groups of black-clad people.  However, once she arrives at his home, Arletty discovers that her father has vanished and left behind a diary where he claims that a darkness has overtaken the town.

Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Thom (Michael Greer) is wandering about town with two groupies (played by Anita Ford and Joy Bang) and interviewing random townspeople.  One crazed man (Elisha Cook, Jr.) explains that “the dark stranger” is returning.  After meeting Arletty, they all end up moving into her father’s house.

But that’s not all.   There’s also an odd albino man who shows up driving truck and who eats mice….

Messiah of Evil is literally one of the strangest films that I’ve ever seen.  It’s shot in a dream-like fashion and the much of the film is left open to the viewer’s interpretation.  There are two classic scenes — one that takes place in a super market and one that takes place in a movie theater and the movie’s worth watching for these two scenes alone.

Messiah of Evil is a film that will be appreciated by all lovers of surrealism and intelligent horror and I’m happy to share it with you today.

Scenes I Love: Messiah of Evil

Since we all just watched the season finale of the Walking Dead (you did watch it, didn’t you?), I figured I’d highlight two scenes from one of my favorite “zombie” films, 1973’s Messiah of Evil

The first scene is one that I never fail to think about whenever I find myself going down to Wal-Mart at 3 in the morning.

The second scene is one that really hits home for me because it takes place in a movie theater.  If nothing else, it perfectly illustrates why you should always have a date (preferably a strong one) if you’re going to the movies.  As sidenote, the unfortunate actress in this scene was named Joy Bang.

Willard Huyck, director of this film, also co-wrote the script for American Graffiti.