Retro Television Review: A Little Game (dir by Paul Wendkos)

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1971’s A Little Game.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

Twelve year-old Robert Mueller (played by 13 year-old Mark Gruner, who would later go on to play one of Chief Brody’s kids in Jaws) just hasn’t been the same since his father died.  Robert idolized his father, who was an architect who built bridges and reportedly pushed his workers to take a lot of dangerous risks to get the job done.  Perhaps that explains why Robert is not getting along with his new stepfather, Paul Hamilton (Ed Nelson).  Robert’s mother, Elaine (Diane Baker), is convinced that Robert will eventually come to accept Paul but Paul isn’t so sure.

Robert is a student at a private military academy.  When he comes home for the holidays, he brings his “best friend” with him.  Stu Parker (Christopher Shea) is friendly and polite but he’s also easily led and has a difficult time standing up for himself.  Paul immediately sees that Robert is bullying Stu.  Elaine, however, thinks that Paul is being too critical.  That’s just the way boys are!

In his diary, Robert has written that he killed someone and that he’s sure that he got away with it.  When Paul comes across the entry, he worries that Robert might be telling the truth.  Paul goes as far as to hire a private detective (Howard Duff) to investigate whether there’s been any mysterious deaths at Robert’s school.  Stu, meanwhile, explains that he and Robert sometimes play “a little game” where they imagine that best way to murder someone and get away with it.  But Stu assures Paul that it’s just a game.  They don’t actually kill anyone.

Is Stu telling the truth or is Robert just as dangerous as his deceased father, a man who Paul claims was a psychopath?  Or is Paul himself the one who has become delusional with jealousy of his stepson?

The answer to those questions is pretty obvious from the minute that Robert and Stu show up at the house.  In fact, it’s so obvious that it kind of leaves the viewer wondering how everyone else in the film could be so clueless.  On the one hand, it’s understandable that Elaine would not want to admit that there is something seriously wrong with her son.  On the other hand, how many times can anyone close their eyes to a very obvious truth?  From the minute that Robert shows up, wearing his uniform and curtly ordering around the family’s maid (played by High Noon‘s Katy Jurado, who deserved a better role), he might as well have psychopath tattooed on his forehead.

That said, evil children movies are always somewhat effective, even the ones that are a bit too obvious in their approach.  Psychologically, we’ve been conditioned to always associate children with innocence, optimism, and hope.  Children are the future, so the saying goes. As such, it does carry some impact when they’re portrayed as being a force of danger.  As I watched this film, I did find myself wondering if there was any hope for Robert.  With all that he had done, could someone still reach him and turn him around?  Or was he destined to go from being an evil child to an evil adult?  It really does get to the question of whether evil is a real, almost supernatural force or if it’s something that’s created by a combination of environment and social taboos.  Was Robert born evil or did he become evil?  A Little Game doesn’t answer that question but I doubt that anyone could.  Some questions are destined to be forever unanswered.

Retro Television Review: The Death of Richie (dir by Paul Wendkos)

Welcome to Retro Television Reviews, a feature where we review some of our favorite and least favorite shows of the past!  On Sundays, I will be reviewing the made-for-television movies that used to be a primetime mainstay.  Today’s film is 1977’s The Death of Richie.  It  can be viewed on YouTube!

It’s not a spoiler to tell you that this film ends with the death of a teenager named Richie.  It’s right there in the title.  We start the film knowing that Richie is going to die.  The only question is how it’s going to happen and who, if anyone, is going to be held responsible for it.

Played by Robby Benson, Richie Werner is a sensitive teenager living in the suburbs.  He’s painfully shy and he deals with that shyness by taking the drugs that are supplied to him by friends like Brick (Charles Fleischer) and Peanuts (Clint Howard, yes that Clint Howard).  His parents, George (Ben Gazzara) and Carol (Eileen Brennan), knows that Richie is struggling with both drugs and school.  However, neither one of them have a clue as to how to help him.  Carol spends most of the film silently hoping that things will somehow just magically get better.  Meanwhile, George can’t understand his son and, even worse, he makes no attempt to understand him.  George holds back his feelings and he’s obviously uncomfortable with his emotional son.  George is the type who retreats to his basement when he needs to get away from the world and yet, he can’t understand why his son needs a similar sanctuary.  When he discovers that Richie has set up a mini-bedroom in his closet, George destroys it.

Throughout the film, Richie tries to get his life straightened out.  He gets a job working at a restaurant but he quits after his friends laugh at his dorky uniform.  He tries to date a girl named Sheila (Cindy Eilbacher) but is heartbroken when he discovers that she’s going out with someone else.  When Richie tries to talk his dad, George refuses to listen.  When George tries to talk to Richie, Richie tells him to get out of his room.  Finally, after Richie crashes his car one last time, it leads to an act of shocking violence.  After all, the film is called The Death of Richie.

It’s also based on a true story, though there’s some debate over whether or not the film gets the story correct.  In real life, Richie’s named was George Richard “Richie” Diener and he lived in Long Island.  (The film appears to take place in a generic California suburb.)  Richie’s death inspired a magazine article and book, both of which inspired this film.  While I was doing research for this review, I came across a website about Richie’s death, one that argued that both the film and the book were too sympathetic to George’s version of what happened the day that Richie died.  The site has comments from many of the people who knew Richie and I recommend it to anyone who watches this film and want to know the other side of the story.

As for the film itself, it’s well-directed, intense, and, at times, rather heart-breaking.  As portrayed in the film, Richie is so desperate for some sort of approval that your heart just goes out to him.  Robby Benson is one of those actors who you come across in a lot of 70s films.  I’ve always found his performances to be a bit inconsistent and that’s certainly the case here.  He’s good when he’s allowed a quiet moment or two but there are other times when he gets so shrill that it takes you out of the reality of the film.  Ben Gazarra does a good job playing George as someone who loves his family but who is incapable of understanding his son’s pain.  Gazarra adds just a hint of ambiguity to his anger toward Richie.  Is he upset because Richie keeps getting trouble or has he reached the point where he’s just looking for an excuse to get Richie out of the family’s life?  According to the comments that I read at the blog mentioned above, both the film and the subsequent book based solely their portrayal of the last minutes of Richie’s life on George’s account.  Many people felt that there was more to what happened.

The film is a bit quick to blame all of Richie’s problems on the drugs.  While the drugs probably didn’t help, there are times when the film seems to suggesting that Richie would have been a happy, go-lucky kid if he had never taken that first Seconal.  Watching the film today, it’s obvious that there was a lot more going on with Richie than just weed and pills and it’s also obvious that calling the cops having them search his room while he watched was not the solution either.  Richie needed someone to talk to and, in the film at least, that was apparently the one thing that he could not get.  As the song says, things get a little easier once you understand.

The Cops Are Robbers (1990, directed by Paul Wendkos)

When Kirkland (George Kennedy) appoints veteran cop Jake Quinn (Ed Asner) to command a division of the Massachusetts Metropolitan Police, one of Quinn’s main duties is to root out corruption.  Everyone knows that Captain Jerry Clemente (Ray Sharkey) is crooked but no one’s been able to prove anything.  This has led to Clemente getting so cocky that he tries to pull off the biggest bank robbery of all time.  Working with two other corrupt cops (played by Steve Railsback and James Keach) and some ex-cons who owe him a favor, Clemente masterminds the theft of $25,000,000 worth of jewelry.

Unfortunately, stealing that much brings in not only the FBI but it also makes Quinn even more determined to expose Clemente and all of his crooked associates.  As well, the Mafia wants their part of the action and the members of Celemente’s gang aren’t as smart as their leader.  Soon the walls are closing in.  Will Clemente get away with his crime or will he end up getting arrested and eventually writing a book about the theft that will eventually be turned into a television movie?

Though the title seems more appropriate for a comedy, The Cops Are Robbers is a drama based on a true story.  It actually could have used some comedy because the movie itself is pretty dry and straight forward.  Ed Asner and George Kennedy give their usual competent performances, cast as the type of characters that they could have played in their sleep.  Unfortunately, Ray Sharkey is nowhere near as effective as the man they’re trying to put behind bars.  When he first started out, Sharkey made a name for himself by giving convincing performances as characters who were tough and streetwise but also sometimes neurotic.  He received Emmy and Golden Globe nominations before he became better known for his trips to rehab than his acting ability.  I think that. as an actor, Sharkey’s downfall was that he saw himself compared to Al Pacino so many times that he started to buy it and he eventyally started to attack every role with the same method-style intensity.  Sometimes, like when he played Sonny Steelgrave during the first season of Wiseguy, it worked.  Most of the time, though, it just led to him overacting and bellowing all of his lines.  That’s the case with The Cops Are Robbers.  Sharkey is so loud and perpetually angry that it’s hard to believe that he’s managed to get away with his crimes for as long as he has.

For those of us who don’t live in Massachusetts, the most interesting thing about watching The Cops Are Robbers is trying to keep track of who works for what agency.  When it was mentioned that Clemente works for the Metropolitan Police, I immediately assumed that meant he was a Boston police officer.  Only later did I learn, via a review on the imdb, that the Metropolitan Police were actually a state agency.  That Clemente was a state official and not just a city cop does make his crimes slightly more interesting, though not enough to really liven up The Cops Are Robbers.

The Strangers in 7A (1972, directed by Paul Wendkos)

Artie Sawyer (Andy Griffith) is a man who no one respects.  Having recently been fired from his long-time job, he’s forced to take a job as a superintendent for an apartment building in New York.  The tenants don’t think much of him.  His wife, Iris (Ida Lupino), is getting tired of his self-pity.  The only person who seems to like Artie is Claudine (Susanne Benton).  The young and beautiful Claudine approaches Artie in a bar and, after flirting with him, reveals that she needs a place to stay.  Artie agrees to let Claudine check out Apartment 7A.  At the apartment, Claudine rolls around in the bed, dances seductively, and then reveals that she has three male friends who are going to be staying in the apartment with her.  Billy (Michael Brandon), Virgil (Tim McIntire), and Riff (James A. Watson, Jr.) all served in Vietnam together and now they need to crash at the apartment for a while.  Artie can either let them stay or they can reveal to his wife that he was at a bar, trying to pick up young women.

Led by the psychotic Billy, the three men are planning on robbing the bank next door.  When Artie, who is having doubts about whether or not it was a good idea to let four obviously unstable people live rent-free in his building, discovers their plans, he and Ida are taken hostage.  When the bank robbery goes wrong, Billy tries to use the hostages and a bomb as leverage for his escape from the police.

As far as films about bank robberies goes, The Strangers in 7A is no Dog Day Afternoon.  While it’s interesting to see the usually confident Andy Griffith play a loser, he never seems like enough of a loser that he would actually risk a job that he clearly needs just because Claudine flashed a little leg at him.  Even when he’s playing a character who is down on his luck, he’s still Andy Griffith.  Along with the lead role being miscast, the bank robbers are too generic to really be credible or threatening.  Susanne Benton is sexy as the femme fatale and Ida Lupino is sympathetic as Artie’s wife but otherwise, The Strangers in 7A is forgettable.

The Strangers in 7A was made for television.  At the time, Andy Griffith was still trying to escape being typecast as Mayberry’s amiable Sheriff Taylor.  Griffith was a convincing villain in movies like Pray For The Wildcats and Savages but he’s just not believable as a loser in this film.

Footsteps (1972, directed by Paul Wendkos)

Paddy O’Connor (Richard Crenna) is a former football player-turned-coach whose record of success has been overshadowed by his own arrogance and heavy drinking.  O’Connor has such a bad personal reputation that he’s found himself unemployable.  Only one man is willing to give him a chance.  Jonas Kane (Clu Gulager) played football with Paddy and he’s now coaches for a small college.  Kane may not like O’Connor but he knows that O’Connor might be the key to turning around his team’s fortunes and, at the same time, saving Kane’s job.  Kane hires O’Connor to serve as a his defensive coordinator.

At first, O’Connor’s cockiness rubs people the wrong way.  It’s not until O’Connor moves offensive player J.J. Blake (Bill Overton) to defense that the team starts to win.  And once the team stars to win, everyone’s problems with O’Connor disappear.  Kane can only watch helplessly as O’Connor moves in on his girlfriend (Joanna Pettet), knowing that he owes his job to O’Connor remaining at the school.

However, when Blake gets a concussion, O’Connor is forced to decide whether or not to let him play.  Boosters like Bradford Emmons (Forrest Tucker) want Blake to play, regardless the risk.  The NFL scouts, who are looking for the next number one pick, want to see Blake on the field.  Blake says he wants to play but O’Connor can tell that he’s lying about the extent of his injury.  With everyone breathing down his neck and a syndicate of gamblers pressuring O’Connor to shave points so that the spread pays off, O’Connor has to decide what to do.

Though this made-for-TV movie may not be as well-known as some other films, it’s one of the best movies ever made about college football.  Though it may be short (only 74 minutes), it still examines all of the issues that have always surrounded college football.  Despite not getting paid for their efforts, the players risk serious and permanent injury during every game, just on the slight hope that they might someday make it to the NFL.  The coaches, who are supposed to be looking after the players, are more interested in padding out their win-loss record and hopefully moving onto bigger and better-paying jobs.  Meanwhile, aging alumni and boosters demand that the team win at all costs, regardless of what happens to the men on the field.  Footsteps intelligently explores all of those issues and suggests that the risks are ultimately not worth the rewards.

Along with an intelligent script, Footsteps is helped by a talented cast.  Crenna and especially Gulager both give excellent performance as the two rival coaches.  Al Lettieri (Sollozzo from The Godfather) plays one of the gamblers.  Beah Richards plays Blake’s mother, who makes the mistake of believing O’Connor when he says that he’s going to always have Blake’s best interests at heart.  Ned Beatty has a small role as another assistant coach who is forced to make an important decision of his own.  Keep an eye out for Robert Carradine and James Woods, both of whom have tiny roles.

As far as I know, Footsteps has never officially been released on DVD.  I saw it late one night on the Fox Movie Channel.

Horror on the Lens: Haunts of the Very Rich (dir by Paul Wendkos)

Today’s horror on the lens is a 1972 made-for-TV movie, Haunts of the Very Rich!

What happens when a bunch of rich people find themselves on an airplane with no memory of how they got there?  Well, first off, they land at a luxury resort!  But what happens when the resort suddenly turns out to be deserted and the guests discover that there’s no apparent way out!?

You can probably already guess the film’s “surprise” ending but Haunts of the Very Rich is still an entertaining little film.  You can check out my more in-depth review here!


Embracing the Melodrama Part II #71: Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction (dir by Paul Wendkos)

CocaineNow, I originally saw the 1983 made-for-TV movie Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction on Netflix so I have absolutely no first hand knowledge of how this film was advertised.  However, I have it on very good authority (i.e., I read it on another blog) that the image above is from the film’s VHS packaging.

Just looking at this image, you would be justified in thinking that Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction was an early David Cronenberg film.  Seriously, it looks like a deleted scene from Scanners and Dennis Weaver’s head is about to explode.

But no!  There are no scanners in Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  David Cronenberg did not direct this film.  As far as I can tell, it wasn’t even filmed in Canada.  Instead, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is about one man who gets seduced cocaine.

You may have noticed that I enjoy reminding you that this film is called Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction.  That’s because that’s a great title.  If the film had just been called Cocaine, you might watch the film expecting it to be set on a 1970s film set.  And if the film had just been called One Man’s Seduction, viewers may have watched the film expecting a Double Indemnitystyle film noir.  But Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction leaves no doubt about what we’re about to see.

Add to that, it’s a very melodramatic title and the name of this series of reviews is, after all, Embracing the Melodrama Part 2!

Anyway, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is about a real estate agent named Eddie Grant (Dennis Weaver).  He’s the type of semi-successful white-collar suburban guy who you just know is going to have a really over-the-top midlife crisis.  He has a wife (Karen Grassle) who loves him.  He has a son (James Spader — yes, that James Spader!) who wants to put off going to college for a year.  Eddie also has a job where he’s viewed as being an over-the-hill relic.  People looking to buy a new home simply are not impressed with Eddie’s cheap suits, mild manner, and old-fashioned scotch-after-work style.

What Eddie needs is a new wardrobe and aviator sunglasses.  And, as we all know from watching movies set in the 70s and 80s, nothing gets you into aviator sunglasses faster than snorting a line of coke.

Soon, Eddie is driving a fast car, he’s wearing nicer suits, and he’s keeping a lot of secrets.  Then, one day, his son — JAMES SPADER! — happens to look inside Eddie’s shave kit and discovers where dad has been hiding his cocaine.

Now, this is where I was expecting Jeff VanVondern to show up and say, ” I see a bunch of people that love you like crazy and they feel like they are losing you. And they wanna fight to get you back.”  But apparently, people in the 80s did not need an intervention to get them to go to rehab.  Instead, they just needed to have a dramatic nose bleed at work and nearly overdose on someone else’s kitchen floor.  They also needed to be called out by James Spader.

Of course, it also helps that Eddie is friends with a recovering cocaine addict who is played by a very thin-but-already-bald Jeffrey Tambor.  Jeffrey Tambor is already something of a hyperactive actor (and that’s why we love him!) so when you combine that natural tendency with a character who is supposed to be coked up, it’s something that simply has to be seen.

Anyway, Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is a fairly good example of the-worst-that-can-happen-will-happen cinema.  If nothing else, it has some worth as a time capsule and it’s undeniably interesting to see James Spader play a role that one would normally never associate with James Spader.

Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction is currently seducing viewers on Netflix.