A Movie A Day #354: Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973, directed by Richard C. Sarafian)


In the backwoods of Hicksville, USA, two families are feuding.  Laban Feather (Rod Steiger, bellowing even more than usual) and Pap Gutshall (Robert Ryan) were once friends but now they are committed rivals.  They claim that the fight started when Pap bought land that once belonged to Laban but it actually goes back farther than that.  Laban and Pap both have a handful of children, all of whom have names like Thrush and Zeb and Ludie and who are all as obsessed with the feud as their parents.  When the Gutshall boys decide to pull a prank on the Feather boys, it leads to the Feathers kidnapping the innocent Roonie (Season Hubley) from a bus stop.  They believe that Roonie is Lolly Madonna, the fictional fiancée of Ludie Gutshall (Kiel Martin).  Zack Feather (Jeff Bridges), who comes the closest of any Feather to actually having common sense, is ordered to watch her while the two families prepare for all-out war.  Zack and Roonie fall in love, though they do not know that another Feather brother has also fallen in love with Gutshall daughter.  It all leads to death, destruction, and freeze frames.

Lolly-Madonna XXX is a strange film.  It starts out as a typical hicksploitation flick before briefly becoming a backwoods Romeo and Juliet and finally ending up as a heavy-handed metaphor for both the Vietnam War and the social upheaval at home.  Along with all the backwoods drama, there is a fantasy sequence where Hawk Feather (Ed Lauter) briefly imagines himself as an Elvis-style performer.  (Hawk also dresses up in Roonie’s underwear.)  Probably the most interesting thing about Lolly-Madonna XXX is the collection of actors who show up playing Feathers and Gutshalls.  Along with Steiger, Ryan, Martin, Bridges, and Lauter, everyone from Randy Quaid to Paul Koslo to Scott Wilson to Gary Busey has a role to play in the feud.  Lolly-Madonna XXX is too uneven and disjointed to really be considered a good movie but I can say that I have never seen anything else like it.

One final note: Lolly-Madonna XXX was directed by Richard Sarafian, who is best known for another early 70s cult classic, Vanishing Point.

A Movie A Day #302: Love and Bullets (1979, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


Joe Bomposa (Rod Steiger) may wear oversized glasses, speak with a stutter, and spend his time watching old romantic movies but don’t mistake him for being one of the good guys.  Bomposa is a ruthless mobster who has destroyed communities by pumping them full of drugs.  Charlie Congers (Charles Bronson) is a tough cop who is determined to take Bomposa down.  When the FBI learns that Bomposa has sent his girlfriend, Jackie Pruit (Jill Ireland), to Switzerland, they assume that Jackie must have information that Bomposa doesn’t want them to discover.  They send Congers over to Europe to bring her back.  Congers discovers that Jackie does not have any useful information but Bomposa decides that he wants her dead anyway.

Love and Bullets is an uneasy mix of action and comedy, with Bronson supplying the former and Ireland trying to help out with the latter.  Not surprisingly, the action works better than the comedy.  Because Charlie is an American in Switzerland, he is not allowed to carry a gun and he is forced to resort to some creative ways to take out Bomposa’s assassins.  Unfortunately, the scenes where Charlie and Jackie fall in love are less interesting, despite Bronson and Ireland being a real-life couple.  Ireland occasionally did good work when she was cast opposite of Bronson but here, she’s insufferable as a ditzy gangster moll with a strange accent.  While everyone else is trying to make an action movie, she’s trying too hard to be Judy Holliday.  Steiger’s peformance starts out as interesting but soon devolves into the usual bellowing and tics.

Love and Bullets does have a good supporting cast, though.  Bradford Dillman, Michael V. Gazzo, Val Avery, Albert Salmi, and Strother Martin all pop up.  The two main hit men are played by Paul Koslo and Henry Silva.  Silva’s almost as dangerous here as he was in Sharky’s Machine.

A Movie A Day #17: The Laughing Policeman (1973, directed by Stuart Rosenberg)


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San Francisco in the 1970s.  Revolution is in the air.  Hippies are on every street corner.  A man named Gus Niles knows that he’s being tailed by an off-duty cop, Dave Evans.  Gus boards a city bus, knowing that Evans will follow him.  On the bus, an unseen gunman suddenly opens fire with an M3 submachine gun, not only killing both Evans and Gus but six other people as well.  After the bus crashes, the gunman calmly departs.  At first, it is assumed that the massacre was another random mass shooting, like Charles Whitman in Austin or Mark Essex in New Orleans.  But one San Francisco detective is convinced that it wasn’t random at all.

The Laughing Policeman was one of the many police procedurals to be released after the box office success of Dirty Harry and The French Connection and, despite the name, it’s also one of the grimmest.  While the complex mystery behind why Evans was following Gus and who killed everyone on the bus is intriguing, The Laughing Policeman‘s main focus is on the often frustrating nitty gritty of the investigation, complete with false leads, uncooperative witnesses, unanswerable questions, and detectives who frequently make stupid mistakes.  The movie’s first fifteen minutes are devoted to the police processing the bus, with Stuart Rosenberg (best known for directing Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke) using overlapping dialogue to give the entire scene a documentary feel.  As Detective Jake Martin, Walter Matthau is even more cynical and downbeat than usual while Bruce Dern provides good support as a younger, more volatile detective.  The supporting cast is full of 70s character actors, like Lou Gossett, Anthony Zerbe, Gregory Sierra,and playing perhaps the sleaziest drug dealer ever seen in an American movie, Paul Koslo.

The Laughing Policeman was based on a Swedish novel that took place in Stockholm but, for the movie, Swedish Detective Martin Beck became world-weary Sgt. Jake Martin and Stockholm became San Francisco.  Rosenberg directed the entire film on location, giving The Laughing Policeman the type of realistic feeling that would later be duplicated by TV shows like Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and Law & Order.  Though it may not be as well-known as either Dirty Harry or The French Connection, The Laughing Policeman is a dark and tough police procedural, an underrated classic of the genre.

Incidentally, The Laughing Policeman was one of the first films for which character actor Bruce Dern shared top billing.  According to Dern’s autobiography, Matthau generously insisted that Dern be credited, with him, above the title.

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More Of Bronson’s Best: Mr. Majestyk (1974, directed by Richard Fleischer)


Mr_Majestyk_movie_posterWhat happens when you combine the great tough guy writer Elmore Leonard with the great tough guy actor Charles Bronson?

You get Mr. Majestyk, one of Bronson’s finest films.

Vince Majestyk (Bronson) may be a former U.S. Army Ranger instructor and a decorated Vietnam vet but now that he has returned home to Colorado, all he cares about is running his watermelon farm.  With a lucrative harvest approaching, Majestyk hires a group of unionized Mexican migrant workers, led by the fiery Linda Chavez (Linda Cristal), to pick his crops.  When a local criminal named Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) shows up and demands that Majestyk hire his drunken crew instead, Majestyk does what Bronson does best.  He gives Kopas an ass-kickin’ beat down.

After Kopas charges him with assault, the local police arrest Majestyk and, despite his request that he be allowed three days to finish harvesting his crop, Majestyk is thrown in jail.  Also in the jail is a Mafia hitman named Frank Renda (Al Lettieri).  Renda may be a tough guy but nobody’s tougher than Vince Majestyk.  When Renda’s associates attempt to hijack a prison bus, Majestyk ends up hijacking it instead.  Majestyk plans to hold Renda hostage until the police agree to give him his three days of freedom so he can get back to his farm.  Renda even offers to pay him off but Majestyk doesn’t care about his money.  He just cares about melons.

Because he was the only 1970s action star who could be believable as both a decorated combat veteran and a no-nonsense watermelon farmer, Charles Bronson is the only actor who could have brought Mr. Majestyk to life.  Before he became an actor, Bronson worked for a living.  From the age of ten until he enlisted in the Army, Bronson worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines, earning one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined.  Though Bronson was never a great actor, his legitimately working class background allowed him to bring an authenticity to a role like Vince Majestyk that most other actors would have lacked.  When Bronson says that all he cares about is bringing in the harvest on time, you believe him just as much as you believe him when he’s beating up Paul Koslo or hijacking a prison bus.

The rest of the cast is full of good 1970s actors who have never really been given their due.  Al Lettieri may be best known for playing Sollozzo in The Godfather but he also does a good job as Frank Renda.  Paul Koslo plays another one his sleazy villains here and does a great job as Bobby Kopas.

Mr. Majestyk was directed by Richard Fleischer but, with its colorful characters, working class hero, and modernized brand of frontier justice, the film is clearly the work of Elmore Leonard. Though Mr. Majestyk is credited as being based on a novel by Leonard, Leonard actually wrote the screenplay before the novel.

The combination of Elmore Leonard and Charles Bronson makes Mr. Majestyk one of the best action films of the 1970s.

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Bronson’s Best: The Stone Killer (1973, directed by Michael Winner)


Stone_killerAfter tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD.  Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can.  When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).

Vescari is plotting something big.  It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time.  Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner.  During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated.  To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen.  Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).

Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star.  His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image.  But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson.  Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.

It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner.  Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best.  Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture.  If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see.  The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.

(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)

The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television.  Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great.  Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.

Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.