God’s Gun (1976, directed by Gianfranco Parolini)

During the dying days of the old west, outlaw Sam Clayton (Jack Palance) ride into the town of Juno City and try to take things over.  Because the sheriff (Richard Boone, who reportedly walked off the film before shooting was complete) is old and ineffectual, it falls to the town priest, Father John (Lee Van Cleef), to chase them off.  Father John is hardly your typical priest.  He’s a former gunfighter who, even though he no longer carries a weapon, still knows how to throw a punch.  Though he manages to put Sam and the gang behind bars, they are all eventually released.  The first thing they do is gun down Father John in front of his own church.

A mute child, Johnny O’Hara (Leif Garrett), flees town to track down Father John’s twin brother, Lewis (also played by Lee Van Cleef).  What Johnny doesn’t know is that Sam, who years ago raped Johnny’s mother (played by Sybil Danning), might actually be his father.  When Johnny finds Lewis, he finally manages to communicate what’s happened.  Lewis and Johnny head back to town so Lewis can get his vengeance  The only catch is that Lewis promised his brother that he would no longer carry a gun so he’s going to have to use his wits to get his revenge.

God’s Gun is a strange film.  It was one of the last of Spaghetti westerns but, though the director was Italian, it was filmed in Israel and it was produced by none other than Menahem Golan.  Golan brings the same producing aesthetic to God’s Gun that he later brought to many Cannon films — a few recognizable veteran actors (Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef), an up-and-coming star (Leif Garrett), an international sex symbol (Sybil Danning), and a spin on a popular genre.  Like many of Golan’s films, the plot is occasionally incoherent and the entire production feels cheap and rushed but, at the same time, it’s hard to resist the mix of Van Cleef, Palance, and Danning.

Adding to the film’s strange feel is that every actor is dubbed, even the ones with trademark voices like Jack Palance and Lee Van Cleef.  Palance sneers throughout the entire film and could be giving a good performance but every time he starts to speak, you hear a voice that is clearly not Jack Palance’s and it makes it hard to get into the story.  There’s also an annoying squawking sound effect that explodes on the film’s soundtrack whenever someone is shot or whenever Lewis makes an appearance.

It’s not all a loss, though.  The Israeli desert is an effective Western backdrop and there are a few good camera shots.  When Lee Van Cleef and Jack Palance have their final confrontation, the picture starts to spin around and it’s pretty cool.  Finally, if you’re a Van Cleef fan, this is a rare chance to see him playing a traditional hero.  Because he’s dubbed, it’s hard to judge Van Cleef’s dual performances but this film does show that he could do more than just be a smirking killer.  He’s actually a pretty convincing priest.  Who would have guessed?

Well of Loneliness: Randolph Scott in THE TALL T (Columbia 1957)

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I’ve told you Dear Readers before that Randolph Scott stands behind only John Wayne in my personal pantheon of great Western stars. Scott cut his cowboy teeth in a series of Zane Grey oaters at Paramount during the 1930’s, and rode tall in the saddle throughout the 40’s. By the mid-50’s, Scott and his  producing partner Harry Joe Brown teamed with director Budd Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy for seven outdoor sagas that were a notch above the average Westerns, beginning with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. The second of these, THE TALL T, remains the best, featuring an outstanding supporting cast and breathtaking location cinematography by Charles Lang, Jr.

Scott plays Pat Brennen, a friendly sort trying to make a go of his own ranch. Pat, who comically lost his horse to his old boss in a wager over riding a bucking bull, hitches a ride with his pal Rintoon’s…

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Insomnia File #28: The Arrangement (dir by Elia Kazan)

What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, on Saturday you were having trouble sleeping at three in the morning, you could have turned on TCM and watched the 1969 film, The Arrangement.

The Arrangement is one of those films where a rich guy gets hit by a sudden case of ennui and, as a result, spends the entire movie acting like a jackass.  However, as often happens in films like this, The Arrangement makes sure that we understand that it’s not the guy’s fault.  Instead, it’s his wife’s fault for not being as much fun as his mistress.

In this case, the guy is an ad executive who goes by the name of Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas).  His original name was Evangelos Arness but he changed his name when he was younger because he apparently didn’t want anyone to know that he came from a Greek family.  When we first meet Eddie, he’s attempting to commit suicide by driving his car into an 18 wheeler.  If he had died, the movie could have ended quickly.  However, since Eddie survived, the audience is now required to spend two hours watching Eddie as he tries to figure out what it all means.

Eddie’s father (Richard Boone) is dying.  His long-suffering wife (Deborah Kerr) just doesn’t understand that Eddie needs more than a big house and a nice pool to feel like a man.  Eddie’s mistress is Gwen (Faye Dunaway), whose new baby may or may not be Eddie’s.  Who could blame Eddie, the film demands to know, for being disillusioned with his comfortable life?

The Arrangement was one of the last films to be directed by Elia Kazan, who was a big deal in the 40s and the 50s and whose goal with The Arrangement was apparently to prove that he should still have been a big deal in the 60s and 70s.  Kazan’s way of doing this is to fill The Arrangement with all types of tricks that were designed to make young filmgoers say, “Man, that Eliza Kazan may be old but he’s one of us!”

Freeze frames?  Kazan’s got them!  Flashback after flashback?  Kazan spreads them all throughout the movie, even when they don’t really have anything to show us.  Scenes where the action is sped up for no identifiable reason?  Just watch Kirk Douglas trot down that hallway!  Rack focus shots?  Zoom shots?  A scene where the young Kirk Douglas argues with the old Kirk Douglas?  Casual nudity that’s still filmed in such a way that it feels oddly reticent, as if the filmmaker was just including it to try to establish his rebel credentials?  The Arrangement has it all!

It also has a lot of close-ups of Kirk Douglas.  In far too many scenes, he’s just sitting around with this blank look on his face and it doesn’t quite work because, as an actor, Douglas has never exactly come across as the type to get trapped in an existential crisis.  We’re supposed to view Kirk as being depressed and conflicted but, in all of his films, Kirk has always come across as someone who hasn’t known a day of insecurity in his entire life.

There are also a few scenes of Kirk just laughing and laughing.  For some reason, movies in the late 60s and early 70s always seemed to feature at least a handful of closeups of people laughing uncontrollably.  I’m not sure why.  (If you want to see the most extreme example of this, check out Getting Straight.)  These scenes are always kind of annoying because there’s only so much time you can spend watching someone laugh at the absurdity of it all before you want them to just close their damn mouth.  Especially when the person in question is a middle-aged man.  I mean, shouldn’t have Kirk figured out that the world is absurd before his 50th birthday?

Anyway, The Arrangement is a pretentious mess.  Of course, most films from the 60s are pretentious.  The problem with The Arrangement is that it’s also boring.  If you’re going to be pretentious, at least have some fun with it, like The Graduate did.  The Arrangement goes on forever and it’s never quite as profound as it seems to think that it is.  I once read a short story that a former friend of mine wrote.  She explained that writing the story had caused her to realize that, the longer you know someone, the more likely your initial impression of that person is going to change.  “You had to write an entire short story to figure that out?” I replied.  (That’s one reason why she’s a former friend.)  But that’s kind of how The Arrangement is.  For all the drama and the technique and the pretension, it has nothing to teach us that we shouldn’t already know.

Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?
  21. Truth
  22. Insomina
  23. Death Do Us Part
  24. A Star is Born
  25. The Winning Season
  26. Rabbit Run
  27. Remember My Name

A Dying Man, Scared of the Dark: John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST (Paramount 1976)

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THE SHOOTIST is John Wayne’s valedictory statement, a final love letter to his many fans. The Duke was now 69 years old and not in the best of health. He’d had a cancerous lung removed back in 1964, and though the cancer was in remission, Wayne must’ve knew his days were numbered when he made this film. Three years later, he died from cancer of the stomach, intestines, and spine. There were worries about his ability to make this movie, but Wayne loved the script and was determined to do it. The result is an elegy to not only the aging actor, but to the Western genre as a whole.


The movie begins with footage of older Wayne westerns (EL DORADO, HONDO, RED RIVER, RIO BRAVO) narrated by Ron Howard (Gillom). “His name was J.B. Books…he wasn’t an outlaw. Fact is, for a while he was a lawman…He had a credo that…

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Horror on the Lens: I Bury The Living (dir by Albert Band)

Today’s Horror on the Lens comes to use from 1958.  It’s entitled I Bury The Living and say whatever you want about the actual film, that’s a great title.

In I Bury The Living, Richard Boone plays Robert Kraft, the newly appointed chairman of a committee that oversees the local cemetery.  Through a series of unlikely events, Kraft becomes convinced that, through the use of black and white push-pins, he can control who will live and who will die.

Does Robert really have God-like powers or is something else happening?

Watch below to find out!  I Bury The Living is no Dellamorte Dellamore but it’s still an enjoyably over the top piece of cemetery mayhem.

44 Days of Paranoia #3: Winter Kills (dir by William Richert)

MPW-39279Yesterday, I took a look at Executive Action, a 1973 docudrama about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Today, I want to take a look at another film inspired by the Kennedys, the 1979 satire Winter Kills.

As the film opens, it’s been 16 years since a popular and dynamic President named Tim Kegan was assassinated in Philadelphia.  Despite constant rumors of conspiracy, the official story is that Kegan was killed by a lone gunman and that gunman was subsequently killed by another lone assassin.  The President’s half-brother, Nick (played by Jeff Bridges, who looks so impossibly young and handsome in this film), has disappointed his father (John Huston) by declining to follow his brother into politics.  Instead, he spends most of his time sailing on corporate oil tankers and dating fashion editor Yvette (Belinda Bauer).  This all changes when a dying man named Fletcher (and played, underneath a lot of bandages, by Joe Spinell) asks for a chance to speak to Nick.  Fletcher reveals that he was the 2nd gunman and that he was hired by to kill President Kegan.  Before dying, Fletcher tells Nick where he can find the rifle that was used to kill the President.

Following Fletcher’s directions, Nick finds both the rifle and proof that his brother’s death was the result of a conspiracy.  Determined to find out who was truly behind the conspiracy, Nick goes to see his father, the flamboyant tycoon Pa Kegan (John Huston) who, we discover, is only alive because he frequently gets blood transfusions from young women.  With Pa’s encouragement, Nick is sent on an increasingly bizarre odyssey into the darkest shadows of America, a world that is populated by militaristic businessmen, sinister gangsters, and an unemotional man named John Cerutti (Anthony Perkins) who very well may be the most powerful man in the world.

The martyred President might be named Tim Kegan, his accused assassin might be named Willie Abbott, and the man who shot Abbott might be named Joe Diamond (and might be played by Eli Wallach) but make no mistake about it — Winter Kills is a thinly disguised look at both the Kennedy assassination and the Kennedy family.  Based on a novel by Richard Condon (who also wrote the conspiracy classic, The Manchurian Candidate), Winter Kills takes all of the various Kennedy conspiracy theories and intentionally pushes them to their most ludicrous extremes.  The end result is a film that tries (and occasionally manages) to be both absurd and sincere, a portrait of a world where paranoia is the only logical reaction.

As I discovered from listening to director William Richert’s commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD, Winter Kills had a long and complicated production history.  The film was produced by two marijuana dealers, one of whom was murdered by the Mafia shortly after the film premiered while the other would later be sentenced to 40 years in prison on federal drug charges.  The production actually went bankrupt more than a few times, which led to Richert, Bridges, and Bauer making and releasing another film specifically so they could raise the money to finish Winter Kills.

When Winter Kills was finally released, it got a good deal of attention because of its spectacular cast.  Along with Bridges, Huston, Perkins, and Wallach, the film also features cameo appearances by Tomas Milian, Elizabeth Taylor, Ralph Meeker, Richard Boone, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Toshiro Mifune, and a host of other actors who will be familiar to those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM.  And yet, according to Richert, the film itself was barely released in to theaters, the implication being that Winter Kills was a film about conspiracies that fell victim to a conspiracy itself.

Given the film’s history and the subject matter, I was really hoping that Winter Kills would turn out to be a great movie.  Unfortunately, it really doesn’t work.  The film struggles to maintain a balance between suspense and satire and, as a result, the suspense is never convincing and the satire is ultimately so obvious that it ends up being more annoying than thought-provoking.  The cast may be impressive but they’re used in such a way that film ultimately feels like it’s just a collection of showy celebrity cameos as opposed to being an actual story.

That said, Winter Kills remains an interesting misfire.  Jeff Bridges is a likable and compelling lead (and he gives the film much-needed focus) and, playing a role that has a lot in common with his better known work in Chinatown, John Huston is a always watchable if not necessaily likable.  Best of all is Anthony Perkins, who plays a role that, in light of what we now know about the NSA, seems oddly prophetic.

Finally, best of all, Winter Kills remains an interesting time capsule.  If nothing else, it reminds us that mistrust and paranoia are not unique to this century.


A Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Robe (dir. by Henry Koster)

As part of my mission to view every film — good or bad — ever nominated for best picture, I spent last night watching 1953’s The Robe (which was nominated for best picture but lost to From Here To Eternity.)  The Robe is an old school biblical epic, the type of film that used to regularly get nominated for best picture but which you don’t see much of anymore.  If you’re wondering why that genre hasn’t stood the test of time, I’d suggest watching The Robe.

Richard Burton stars as Marcellus, a womanizing Roman centurion who falls in love with young, pure noblewoman Diana (Jean Simmons).  Unfortunately, Diana is set to marry the decadent Caligula (Jay Robinson).  (Yes, that Caligula…)  Burton’s rivalry with Caligula leads to him being reassigned to Jerusalem where he not only witnesses the crucifixion but also wins Jesus’ robe in a dice game.  However, Marcellus soon finds himself being haunted by nightmares of the crucifixion and he discovers that he can’t even wear the robe without having a seizure.  His slave, Demetrius (played by musclebound Victor Mature) has secretly become a Christian and steals The Robe before disappearing into the Holy Land.  As Marcellus, who believes that only by destroying the robe can he free himself from his guilt, searches for Demetrius, he is reunited with Diana and, since this is an old school biblical epic, he also ends up converting as well.  Unfortunately, he does all this around the same time that Caligula becomes Emperor and (in this film if not in actual history) begins to persecute the early Christians.

The Robe was the first film to made in “Cinemascope” and, while that may have been an amazing development back in 1953, when watched today, it’s obvious how much of the film is really just made up of filler designed to show off the new process.  Again, it may have been amazing at the time but today, it just seems like a slow movie.  Even more importantly, The Robe itself is so reverent and respectful of its subject that it’s just not that interesting.  Speaking as a nonbeliever, I’ve still sometimes feel that a lot of contemporary films make it a point to ridicule Christians because they’re an easy target.  Unlike a certain other world-wide religion, most Christians aren’t going to blow you up just because you featured an image of Jesus in your movie.  However, movies like The Robe were not only extremely reverent and respectful but they went out their way to let you know how reverent and respectful they were being.  The result is a film that lack any hint of nuance or anything that might actually challenge the audience.  It’s like Avatar with Jesus

Since he’s best known for being an alcoholic and marrying Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton might seem like an odd choice to play an idealistic Christian martyr.  And, quite frankly, he is.  Throughout the film, he’s visibly uncomfortable and, quite frankly, he didn’t have the legs necessary to pull off the ancient Roman look either.  Jean Simmons is also stuck playing a stock character — the virtuous maiden.  As with a lot of the old school biblical epics, the lead characters are so boring that you can’t help but feel they had more fun as pagans.  Meanwhile, poor Victor Mature wanders through the film struggling to show anything resembling emotion.   I mean, he tries so hard that its impossible not to like him.  At the very least, The Robe proves that any film featuring Victor Mature will have some sort of camp value. 

(As I watched The Robe, I kept thinking about a comment that Groucho Marx supposedly made.  Apparently, he said he wouldn’t watch any movie starring Victor Mature because “I won’t watch any movie where the guy’s tits are bigger than the girl’s.”)

The Robe does feature some interesting supporting performances from several wonderful B-movie character actors.  Jay Robinson is obviously having the time of his life playing the Emperor Caligula.  Robinson’s version isn’t quite as effective as Malcolm McDowell’s but Robinson is a  lot more fun to watch.  Richard Boone is effectively slovenly in the role of Pilate and there’s a nice little throw-away scene where Pilate absent-mindedly washes his hands twice.  Meanwhile Ernest Thesiger (who played Dr. Pretorious in the Bride of Frankenstein) is an oddly benevolent Emperor Tiberius while Michael Rennie, the alien from the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, plays none other than St. Peter.  Even Jeff Morrow (from This Island Earth) has a small role.

Like most of the old school Hollywood biblical epics, The Robe seems pretty hokey when viewed today and I get the feeling it probably seemed hokey when it was first released back in 1953.  Still, I remember that my Grandma Meehan used to love to watch these movies whenever they would show up on television.  She would have deep theological debates with the images that flickered across the screen.   I can still remember spending multiple Easters listening to her argue with The Ten Commandments.  I don’t know if Grandma ever saw The Robe but I do know that she believed that the Holy Tunic was presently located in France and not at the Cathedral of Trier in Germany.  Seriously, you did not want to question her on this point. 

To be honest, watching this type of film is always an odd experience for me.  Up until recently, I described myself as a “fallen Catholic” and I always felt so proud of myself afterward.  I could spend hours telling you why I no longer believed in the faith of my childhood and I could get quite smug about it.  I guess I still can but, as of late, I’ve discovered that humility goes well with a lack of faith.  I’ve also been forced to admit that when you’re raised Catholic, you’re a Catholic for life regardless of whether you believe in the Holy Trinity or not.  If pressed, I guess I’d call myself “an agnostic Catholic.”  I’m the type of nonbeliever who still feels the need to go to confession after a long weekend.  It’s not so much that I doubt my doubt as much as I wish that I could still go back to a time in my life when I actually could have faith without feeling like I was in denial.  So, even as I openly scoff at these films, there’s always that small part of my heart that wants to embrace the film in all of its simplistic and hokey glory.

That said, it’s also true that The Robe is a lot easier to resist than a film like Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew or, for that matter, The Exorcist.