North Dallas Forty (1979, directed by Ted Kotcheff)


Pete Gent was a college basketball star at Michigan State University who, in 1964, received a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.  Intrigued by the $500 that the team was offering to any player who attended training camp that summer, Gent accepted.  Despite the fact that Gent had never before played football, the Cowboys were impressed with his athleticism and they signed him to the team.

For five seasons, Gent played wide receiver.  During that time, he caught a lot of balls, became close friends (or so he claimed) with quarterback Don Meredith, and got under the skin of Coach Tom Landry with his nonconformist attitude.  After several injuries kept him off the field during the 1968 season, Gent was traded to the Giants who waived him before the next regular season began.

Out of work and with no other team wanting to sign him, Gent wrote a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about his time with the Cowboys.  North Dallas Forty was published in 1973 and it immediately shot up the best seller charts.  When the book was published, football players were still regularly portrayed as being wholesome, all-American athletes and the Dallas Cowboys were still known as America’s Team.  North Dallas Forty shocked readers with its details about groupies, drugs, racism, and gruesome injuries.  The NFL, of course, claimed that Gent was just a disgruntled former player who was looking to get back at the league.  When asked about the book (which portrayed him as being a marijuana-loving good old boy), Don Meredith was reported to have said, “If I’d known Gent was as good as he says he was, I would have thrown to him more.”

Meredith had a point, of course.  In the book, Pete Gent portrays himself as not only being the smartest man in football but also as having the best hands in the league.  Men want to be him.  Women want to be with him.  And the North Dallas Bulls (which is the book’s version of the Dallas Cowboys) don’t know what they’re losing when they release him for violating the league’s drug policy.  Today, when you read it and you’re no longer shocked by all of the drugs and the sex, North Dallas Forty comes across as mostly being a case of very sour grapes.

Luckily, the film version is better.

Nick Notle plays Phil Elliott, a broken-down receiver who wakes up most mornings with a bloody nose and who can barely walk without first popping a hundred pills.  Phil is a nonconformist and a rebel.  He loves to play the game but he hates how it’s become a business.  Mac Davis plays Seth Maxwell, the team’s quarterback and Phil’s best friend.  Seth is just as cynical as Phil but he’s better at playing politics.  G.D. Spradlin is B.A. Strother, the cold head coach who is a thinly disguised version of the legendary Tom Landry.  In the novel, B.A. Strother was portrayed as being a hypocritical dictator.  The film’s version is more sympathetic with Strother being portrayed as stern but not cruel.  Strother even tells Phil that he “can catch anything.”

Both the film and the book take place over the course of one week leading to a big game against Chicago.  In the book, Phil says that he and Seth don’t care about whether or not they win.  In the movie, they much do care but, at the same time, they know that they’re being held back by a system that cares more about whether or not they follow the rules than if they win the game.  While Phil’s teammates (including Bo Svenson as Joe Bob Priddy and John Mantuszak as O.W. Shaddock) behave like animals, Phil falls in love with Charlotte Caulder (Dayle Haddon), who doesn’t care about football.

Pete Gent was originally hired to write the film’s screenplay but left after several disagreements with producer Frank Yablans.  (The screenplay was completed by Yablans, directed Ted Kotcheff, and an uncredited Nancy Dowd.)  The movie loosely follows the novel while dropping some of its weaker plot points.  As a result, the film version has everything that made the novel memorable but without any of Gent’s lingering bitterness over how his career ended.  The novel used football as a metaphor for everything that was going wrong in America in the 60s and 70s but the movie is more of a dark comedy about one man rebelling against the system.

There’s only a few minutes of game footage but North Dallas Forty is still one of the best football movies ever made, mostly because Nick Nolte is absolutely believable as an aging wide receiver.  He’s convincing as someone who can still make all the plays even though he’s usually in so much pain that it’s a struggle for him to get out of bed every morning.  He’s also convincing as someone who loves the game but who won’t give up his freedom just to play it.  This is a definite improvement on the novel, in which Phil seemed to hate football so much that it was hard not to wonder why he was even wasting his time with it.  Country-and-western signer Mac Davis is also convincing as Seth Maxwell and fans of great character actors will be happy to see both Charles Durning and Dabney Coleman in small roles.

Whether you’re a football fan or not, North Dallas Forty is a great film.  Coming at the tail end of the 70s, it’s a character study as much as its a sports film.  It’s also one of the few cinematic adaptations to improve on its source material.  As a book, North Dallas Forty may no longer be shocking but the movie will be scoring touchdowns forever.

Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

Drive-In Saturday Night 3: MACON COUNTY LINE (AIP 1974)/RETURN TO MACON COUNTY (AIP 1975)


cracked rear viewer


Yee-haw! Southern Fried Exploitation was box office gold during the 1970’s, a  genre that usually had one or more of the following elements: race cars, moonshine, redneck sheriffs, scantily clad country girls, shotguns, and/or Burt Reynolds .  One of the foremost practitioners of this art was Max Baer, namesake son of the heavyweight boxer and erstwhile Jethro Bodine of TV’s THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, who scored a surprise hit when he produced, wrote, and costarred in 1974’s MACON COUNTY LINE.

The story’s set in the 50’s, complete with some vintage tunes on the soundtrack (The Chords’ “Sh-Boom”, Laverne Baker’s “Jim Dandy”, Big Joe Turner’s “Corrine, Corrina”). “The story is true”, reads a pre-credits scrawl, “only the names have been changed” (Actually, the story was concocted by Baer and director Richard Compton, but what the hey…). Brothers Chris and Wayne Dixon (played by brothers Alan and Jesse Vint ) are a pair…

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Griffith Gets Serious: Winter Kill (1974, directed by Jud Taylor)


Eagle Lake, a mountain resort town in California, has a problem.  It’s almost tourist season and there is a sniper stalking through the night, using his rifle to pick off citizens and painting messages like “The First” and “The Second” in the snow.  It’s up to police chief Sam McNeill (Andy Griffith) to figure out the killer’s motives and capture him before the vacation season begins!  To catch the killer, McNeill is going to have to investigate his friends and neighbors, all of whom have secrets that they don’t want to have revealed.

1974 was a busy year for Andy Griffith.  Best-known for playing the folksy and reassuring Sheriff Taylor for over ten years on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to change his image by appearing in three unexpectedly dark made-to-TV movies.  In Pray For The Wildcats and Savages, Griffith played the villain.  In Winter Kill, he’s back in a more familiar role.  He is once again playing a lawman, though this one carries a gun and doesn’t have time to sit on his porch and play the guitar while Aunt Bea makes dinner.  Instead, he’s getting pressure from all sides to capture a psycho sniper who, at the start of the movie, shoots an old woman after throwing pebbles at her bedroom window.  Eventually, the sniper even ends up kidnapping Chief McNeill’s girlfriend!  This never happened in Mayberry!

Winter Kill is a pretty good mystery.  It’s not strictly a horror film but the sight of the masked sniper, making his way through the night and coldy gunning down unsuspecting victims is scary enough that it might as well be.  Andy Griffith was surprisingly tough and gritty as Chief McNeill.  He might be a good guy in this movie but you still know better than to mess with him.  The rest of the cast is made up of television regulars but keep an eye out for a youngish Nick Notle playing a cocky ski instructor.

Winter Kill was actually meant to be a backdoor pilot for a show where Chief McNeill would battle crime on a weekly basis.  Though that didn’t happen, the concept was later retooled and became a short-lived series called Adams of Eagle Lake.

A Movie A Day #319: Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976, directed by Thomas L. Dyke and William Dear)


You can’t always tell a book by its cover and that is the case with the Spirits, the nicest motorcycle gang to ever roll across America’s highways.  When they come across an old couple on the side of the road with a flat tire, they don’t rob the couple.  Instead, they change the tire.  When they come across a young man named Chris (David Hyrly, who is overdubbed by a young Nick Nolte), they invite him to join them on their journey.  When they are arrested, they sit in jail and roll a joint.  The Spirits are solid dudes.  But because they are rebels who live outside of straight society, they will always be picked on by the Man.  After a redneck deputy rapes the Chris’s girlfriend, the deputy blames the Spirits.  Soon, the Spirits find themselves under attack and are violently picked off one by one.  In self-defense, the Spirits start to arm themselves.  It all comes to a head in a violent confrontation in Northville Cemetery.

Made for a miniscule budget. featuring a largely amateur cast, and graphically violent, Northville Cemetery Massacre is an overlooked masterpiece, the type of movie that Sam Peckinpah would have made if he had worked on AIP biker movies instead of westerns.  The Spirits are innocent and, as long as no one hassles them, peaceful but the rest of the world only sees their motorcycles and their leather jackets.  The rapist deputy is one of the most evil lawmen in film history but because he wears a uniform and know the right people, he knows that he will never have to face justice.  The ambiguous ending proves that the filmmaker’s had more on their mind than just cashing in one the tail end of the biker genre’s popularity.  Adding to the film’s strength is a country-rock score from former Monkee Mike Nesmith and the casting of members of a real-life motorcycle club, the Scorpions.  What the Scorpions may have lacked in acting ability, they made up for in authenticity.

Northville Cemetery Massacre was made in the early 70s but it wasn’t released by Cannon Films until 1976, at which point the biker genre was close to dead.  Northville Cemetery Massacre provided audiences with one last chance to get their motor running, head out on the highway, and look for adventure with smoke and lightning and heavy metal thunder.

Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)


And I beheld as Scorsese remade a classic movie and, Lo, there was De Niro, decorated in india ink and speaking in tongues…

In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 horror thriller, Cape Fear.  Both versions deal with the same basic story but each tells it in a very different way.  If the original Cape Fear was straightforward and to the point, Martin Scorsese’s version is so stylized that occasionally, it’s tempting to suspect that Scorsese might be parodying himself.  Zoom shots, negative shots, sweeping camera movements, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is full of all of them.  When a storm rolls in for the film’s operatic finale, the red clouds look as if their on fire.  Hell is coming to North Carolina, the film appears to be announcing.

While the plot largely remains the same, there are a few significant changes to the characters involved:

In the first Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady was an arrogant, swaggering brute.  In the remake, Robert De Niro’s Cady is still an arrogant, swaggering brute but he’s now also an evangelical who is tattooed with bible verses and who speaks in tongues.  Cape Fear‘s approach to Cady’s religion is so over-the-top that it almost makes Stephen King’s approach to religious characters seem subtle and nuanced.  De Niro also speaks in a broad Southern accent.  Occasionally, De Niro gets the accent right but most of the time, he sounds like he’s in a Vermont community theater production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden was a lawyer who caught Max while Max was attacking a woman and who then testified against Max in court.  That’s not the case with the remake’s version of Sam Bowden.  Despite being played by Nick Nolte, the remake’s Sam Bowden is such a wimp that you can’t help but dislike him.  His wife (Jessica Lange) doesn’t trust him.  His teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) resents him and his attempts to control her life.  In this version, Sam didn’t testify against Max in court.  Instead, Sam was Max’s lawyer and withheld evidence that could have secured Max’s acquittal.  What Sam didn’t realize is that Max would spend his time in prison studying the law and that Max would eventually figure out what Sam did.

As in the original film, Max shows up in North Carolina and proceeds to stalk the Bowdens.  Unlike Mitchum, who was all quiet menace, De Niro plays Max as being loud and obnoxious, the type who will sit in a theater, light a cigar, and intentionally laugh at the top of his lungs.  Max knows enough about the law that he knows exactly what he can get away with.  He poisons Sam’s dog.  He rapes Sam’s associate, Lori (played, in a heart-breaking performance, by Ileana Douglas).  In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, he pretends to be the new drama teacher and toys with Sam’s daughter.

With the help of a private eye (Joe Don Baker), Sam tries to get Max out of his life.  Eventually, Sam pretends to be out-of-town, all as part of a ruse to get Max to break into his house so that he can be shot in self-defense.  It’s here that Nolte’s wimpy performance becomes an issue.  It’s impossible not to laugh at the sight of Sam, all hunched down and desperately trying to run from room to room without being spotted through any of the windows.

To a certain extent, I suspect that were meant to see Sam as being a rather pathetic figure.  Scorsese doesn’t really seem to have much sympathy for him or his dysfunctional family.  If anything, the film seems to argue that Sam has been a bad lawyer, a bad husband, and a bad father and Max has been sent as a type of divine retribution.  Only by defeating Max can Sam find forgiveness and hope to have the type of life that Gregory Peck enjoyed in the first movie.

Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an uneasy mishmash of styles.  Is it an art film, a religious allegory, a horror film, or just a generic thriller?  It doesn’t seem to be sure.  Cape Fear‘s a Scorsese film so, of course, it’s always going to be worth watching.  But there are times when the film definitely runs the risk of overdosing on style.  Sometimes, Scorsese seems to be trying too hard to remind everyone that he’s a legitimately great director and ends up getting so invested in the film’s visuals that he runs the risk of losing the story.  De Niro has some scenes in which he is genuinely chilling but then he has other scenes where he is basically just a live action cartoon character.  The same can be said of the film itself.  It’s always watchable.  At times, it’s rather frightening.  But other times, it’s just too cartoonish to be effective.

If anything, this remake proves that sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple.

A Movie A Day #113: Mother Night (1996, directed by Keith Gordon)


Four years after she played the mysterious (and dead) Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, Sheryl Lee starred as another mysterious (and possibly dead) woman in Mother Night.

Lee is cast as Helga Noth, the German wife of American expatriate Harold W. Campbell (Nick Nolte).  Harold is a playwright, living in Berlin and doing propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis.  Working with Frank Wirtanen (John Goodman), a military intelligence officer, Campbell has developed a series of verbal tics that are meant to secretly deliver information to the Allied Forces.  It is never clear whether Harold’s information serves any real purpose just as it is left ambiguous as to whether Harold believes any of the anti-Semitic propaganda that he broadcasts over the airwaves.  Working as both a propagandist and a double agent, Harold serves both the Allies and the Axis.

In the final days of the war, Helga is reportedly killed on the Eastern Front and Harold is captured by the Americans.  Frank arranges for Harold to be quietly sent to New York City but tells him that the government will never admit that they used him as a double agent.

Harold spends the next fifteen years living an isolated life in New York.  His only friend is an elderly painter, Kraft (Alan Arkin), with whom he plays chess.  Eventually, Harold opens up to the painter and talks about his past.  Kraft, for his own shady reasons, reveals Harold’s identity to a group of neo-Nazis.  Though Harold initially wants nothing to do with them, this changes when they reveal that they have Helga.

Or do they?  Almost no one in Mother Night is who they claim or what they seem to be, especially not Harold.

Based on a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night suffers from the same uneven quality that seems to afflict most films based on Vonnegut’s work.  It is easy to go overboard when it comes to bringing Vonnegut’s unique mix of drama and satire to the screen and Mother Night does that in a few scenes, especially once Harold reaches New York.  It is still an intriguing and thought-provoking film, though.  Nick Nolte gives one of his best performances as Harold and Sheryl Lee does a good job in a difficult role.

The pinnacle of Vonnegut films remains George Roy Hill’s version of Slaughterhouse-Five but Mother Night is still superior to something like Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Breakfast of Champions.