Tom Horn (1980, directed by William Wiard)


Today would have been Steve McQueen’s 90th birthday.

Sadly, McQueen died in 1980 at the absurdly young age of 50.  In life, McQueen never got as much respect as he deserved as an actor but in death, he’s been rediscovered as not just an icon of cool but also as an underrated actor who, much like Clint Eastwood, could say a lot without uttering a word.  (Be sure to read Marshall Terrill’s biography of McQueen.)  When Steve McQueen (as played by Damian Lewis) showed up in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, it seemed appropriate.  McQueen and Tarantino both seem made for each other, even if McQueen died long before Tarantino even wrote his first screenplay.

McQueen made two films shortly before he died, The Hunter and Tom Horn. Unfortunately, neither one of them was a hit with audiences or critics.  The Hunter, which was McQueen’s last film, is a forgettable movie that features McQueen as a bounty hunter who can’t drive.  Tom Horn, however, was an underrated western that features one of McQueen’s best performances.

In Tom Horn, McQueen plays the title character, a legendary frontier scout who is known for the role he played in the capture of Geronimo.  When the film opens, Tom Horn has seen better days.  With the frontier changing and the old west being replaced by the modern age, Horn has been reduced to being almost a vagrant, wandering from town to town in search of work.  When the film begins, Horn has found employment as a “stock detective.”  He’s employed by the local cattlemen to keep rustlers from stealing their stock.  Horn uses the same violent methods that he’s always used, gunning down rustlers and often doing so in public.  What Horn doesn’t realize is that times have changed and the methods that previously made him a legend are now making him a pariah.  When the cattlemen realize that the townspeople are turning against them because of Horn’s activities, they conspire to take out Horn themselves.

Tom Horn is based on a true story.  In 1903, Tom Horn was hung for shooting a 15 year-old boy.  While it is agreed that Horn killed many men over the course of his life, he was undoubtedly framed for the murder for which he was executed.  While sitting in his jail cell, waiting to be executed, Horn wrote the autobiography upon which this movie is based.  The movie makes the argument that Horn was executed because he was a reminder of what the West used to be like.  In order to prove that they were now ready to be members of civilized society, the cattleman had to sacrifice Horn in the most public way possible.

The film does a good job of capturing the final days of the old west and Steve McQueen does an even better job of playing a man who doesn’t realize that his time has come to a close.  Horn often seems to be the only man who doesn’t understand that the time of outlaws and the gunslingers is coming to a close and that leaves him defenseless when he’s put on trial.  Even after found guilty, Horn remains confident that he will somehow escape the hangman’s noose.  Tragically, it’s not until time is up that Horn truly comes to understand that the world has changed and civilization no longer has place for men like him.  The same people who used to depend on men like Tom Horn now just want to forget that he ever existed.  McQueen took a long break between making The Towering Inferno and Tom Horn and dropped out of the public eye.  The only film he made during that period was a barely released version of Enemy of the People.  When McQueen made Tom Horn, he was also a man out of time and he brings a sense of resignation and loss to the role that he might not have been capable of doing earlier in his career.

Sadly, it was while filming Tom Horn that McQueen first started to show symptoms of the cancer that would eventually kill him.  Tom Horn was released in 1980 and never got the attention that it deserved.  It’s a minor western classic and features Steve McQueen at his best.

 

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.

Fun in the Sun: BEACH BLANKET BINGO (AIP 1965)


cracked rear viewer

You’d think by the fourth entry in American-International’s ‘Beach Party’ series, 1965’s BEACH BLANKET BINGO, the formula would be wearing a bit thin. Frankie and Annette are still trying to make each other jealous, Eric Von Zipper and his Rats are still comic menaces, and the gang’s into yet another new kick (skydiving this time around). But thanks to a top-notch supporting cast of characters, a sweet subplot involving a mermaid, and the genius of comedy legend Buster Keaton , BEACH BLANKET BINGO is loads of fun!

Aspiring singer Sugar Kane skydives from a plan into the middle of the ocean and is “rescued” by surfer Frankie. But not really… it’s all been a publicity stunt by her PR agent ‘Bullets’. Sugar is played by lovely Linda Evans, right before she landed on TV’s THE BIG VALLEY, and ‘Bullets’ is none other than the fantastically sarcastic Paul Lynde. But wait… Eric Von Zipper…

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