Film Review: Firehouse (1973, directed by Alex March)


Firefighter Shelly Forsythe (Richard Roundtree) has just been assigned to a new firehouse and, from the minute he shows up, it’s trouble.  Not only is he resented for taking the place of a popular (if now dead) firefighter but he’s also the first black to have ever been assigned to that firehouse.  Led by angry racist Skip Ryerson (Vince Edwards), the other firemen immediately distrust Forsythe and subject him to a grueling hazing.  However, Forsythe is determined to prove that he’s just as good as any white firefighter and refuses to be driven out.  While the firehouse simmers with racial tensions, a gang of arsonists is setting buildings on fire.

Firehouse does not have much of a plot but what little it does have, it deals with in a brisk 72 minutes.  Forsythe shows up for his first day.  Everyone hazes him.  Forsythe gets mad.  There’s a big fire.  And then the movie ends, without resolving much.  Ryerson is still a racist and Forsythe is still mad at almost everyone in the firehouse.  The characters are all paper thin and most of the fire fighting scenes are made up of grainy stock footage.  What does make the film interesting is the way that it handles the causal racism of almost every white character.  Ryerson, for instance, comes across as being an unrepentant racist but the film suggests that this is mostly due to him being too stubborn to change his ways and that Ryerson’s not that bad once you get to know him.  When Andrew Duggan’s fire chief instructs Forsythe not to take any of the constant racial remarks personally, Firehouse portrays it as if Duggan is giving good and reasonable advice.  The mentality was typical for 1973 but wouldn’t fly today.

One reason why Firehouse ends so abruptly is because it was a pilot for a television series.  At the time Firehouse aired, it had been only two years since Roundtree starred as John Shaft and NBC hoped that to recapture that magic on a weekly basis.  However, it would take another year before the Firehouse television series went into production and, by that time, Roundtree had left the project.  In fact, with the exception of Richard Jaeckel, no one who appeared in the pilot went on to appear in the short-lived TV series.

The DVD of Firehouse is infamous for featuring a picture of Fred Williamson on the cover, in which Williamson is smoking a cigar and wearing a fireman’s helmet.  Williamson does not appear anywhere in Firehouse and I can only imagine how many people have sat through Firehouse expecting to see a Fred Williamson blaxploitation film, just to discover that it was actually a Richard Roundtree television pilot.  Firehouse probably would have been better if it had starred Fred Williamson.  Roundtree’s good but sometimes, you just need The Hammer.

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Q (dir by Larry Cohen)


This 1982 film from Larry Cohen is a strange one.

Q stands for Quetzalcoatl, a winged-serpent that was once worshiped by the Aztecs.  In New York someone has been performing ritual sacrifices, flaying victims of their skin.  As a result, Q has flown all the way to New York City and has taken residence in the Chrysler Building.  She’s also laid an egg, from which a baby Q will soon emerge.

Now, I’ve always heard that it’s next to impossible to surprise a New Yorker.  Apparently, living in New York City means that you’ve seen it all.  And that certainly seems to be the case with this film because no one in New York seems to notice that there’s a winged serpent flying over the city.  Somehow, Q manages to snatch up all sorts of people without anyone noticing.  When Q beheads a window washer, Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) aren’t particularly concerned by the fact that they can’t find the man’s head.  Shepard just shrugs and says the head will turn up eventually.

Q is really two films in one.  One of the films deals with a winged serpent flying over New York and killing people.  This film is a throwback to the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s, complete with some charmingly cheesy stop motion animation.  The film is silly but undeniably fun.  Director Cohen is both paying homage to and poking fun at the classic monster movies of the past and both Carradine and Roundtree gamely go through the motions as the two cops determined to take down a flying monster.

But then there’s also an entirely different film going on, a film that feels like it belongs in a totally different universe from the stop-motion monster and David Carradine.  This second film stars Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn, a cowardly but charming criminal who would rather be a jazz pianist.  Quinn may be a habitual lawbreaker but he always makes the point that he’s never carried a gun.  He does what he has to do to survive but he’s never intentionally hurt anyone.  In Quinn’s eyes, he’s a victim of a society that has no room for a free-thinker like him.

However, when Quinn stumbles across Q’s nest, he suddenly has an opportunity to make his mark.  As he explains it to the police, he’ll tell them where to find the serpent and her eggs.  But they’re going to have to pay him first….

In the role of Quinn, Michael Moriarty is a jittery marvel.  Whenever Moriarty is on screen, he literally grabs the film away from not only his co-stars but even his director and makes it his own.  Suddenly, Q is no longer a film about a monster flying over New York City.  Instead, Q becomes a portrait of an outsider determined to make the world acknowledge not only his existence but also his importance.  After spending his entire life on the fringes, Jimmy Quinn is suddenly the most important man in New York and he’s not going to let the moment pass without getting what he wants.  Thanks to Moriarty’s bravura, method-tinged performance, Jimmy Quinn becomes a fascinating character and Q becomes far more than just another monster movie.

It makes for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience but the film still works.  With its charmingly dated special effects and it’s surprisingly great central performance, Q is definitely a film that deserves to be better-known.

That’s Blaxpolitation! 12: SHAFT (MGM 1971)


cracked rear viewer

“That Shaft is a bad mother…”

“Shut your mouth!”

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft”

“We can dig it!”

  • – lyrics from Isaac Hayes’ “Theme from SHAFT

1971’s SHAFT, starring Richard Roundtree as “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks”, is the movie that kicked off the whole 70’s Blaxploitation phenomenon.  Sure, Mario Van Pebbles’ indie SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSSS SONG was released three months earlier, but it’s X-rating kept younger audiences out of the theaters. SHAFT reached more people with it’s R rating, and the publicity machine of MGM behind it. In fact, John Shaft not only saved the day in the film, but helped save the financially strapped MGM from bankruptcy!

The opening sequence alone makes it worth watching, as the camera pans down the gritty mean streets of New York City (42nd Street, to be exact!) and that iconic funky theme song by Isaac…

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A Movie A Day #334: Charley One-Eye (1973, directed by Don Chaffey)


Welcome to the old west, where life is brutal and unpredictable.  Ben (Richard Roundtree) joined the Union Army so he could kill white men.  When his commanding officer caught Ben in bed with his wife, Ben was forced to commit murder and go on the run.  When Ben stumbles across an unnamed Indian (Roy Thinnes) with a bad leg, Ben forces the Indian to accompany him.  Despite Ben being loud, cruel, and mentally unstable, an unlikely friendship develops between Ben and the Indian, cemented by their mutual hatred of the white man.  When they find a deserted church, Ben and the Indian settle in and start to raise chickens.  The Indian’s favorite chicken is a one-eyed bird that he has named Charley.  Meanwhile, the Bounty Hunter (Nigel Davenport), a British racist, retraces their every step.

Richard Roundtree made Charley One-Eye after shooting to fame as John Shaft.  This film was his attempt to show that he was capable of playing more than just the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the ladies.  Ben is a world away from Shaft.  There’s nothing smooth or charming about Ben, who never stop laughing or talking about how much he wants to kill a white man.  (Though the character introduces himself as being named “Ben,” the end credits simply read, “The Black Man … Richard Roundtree.”) The Indian is also half-crazy and given to fits of laughter.  The Bounty Hunter never laughs.  Whenever these three aren’t talking, the sound of buzzing flies is heard.  Death and decay are all around.

Don Chaffey was a British director who best known for films like Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C.  Charley One-Eye was a strange departure for him and he would never make another film like it.  It has elements of the Blaxploitation genre and Spaghetti western fans will recognize Aldo Sambrell in the tiny role of a Mexican bandit.  But it is really neither blaxploitation nor a western.  It’s a slowly paced, sometimes boring character study of two outsiders.  Both Roundtree and Thinnes give good performances, though their characters are sometimes hard-to-take.  The only thing that makes Ben and the Indian tolerable is that their enemies, like the Bounty Hunter, are a hundred times worse.  There is a weird religious subtext running through the entire movie and the ending will leave you wondering whether the director of Jason and the Argonauts was actually calling for armed revolution.  Charley One-Eye is uneven and it goes on for at least thirty minutes too long but it is still an intriguingly strange movie.

One final note: Charley One-Eye was produced by none other than David Frost, the British media personality whose post-presidency interview with Richard Nixon was recreated in Frost/Nixon.

A Movie A Day #330: The Banker (1989, directed by William Webb)


It’s hard out here for a pimp and even worse for a banker.

Spaulding Osborne (Duncan Regehr) is a successful banker at the height of the 80s but handling all that money can be stressful.  Everyone needs a way to relax.  Osborne unwinds by painting his face like a tiger and murdering prostitutes with a laser sighted crossbow.  A worshipper of the ancient Gods, Osborne believes himself to be immortal and sees his murder spree as a way to collect souls.  Two pimps (Leif Garrett and Jeff Conaway) keep Osborne supplied with victims.  When Osborne suspects that one of the pimps has betrayed him, he demands that the pimp name all of the seven dwarves if he wants to live.  It pays to know your Disney.

What Osborne didn’t count on was that the chief of police (Richard Roundtree) would assign one of his weariest detectives, Dan (Robert Forster), to the case or that the detective’s TV reporter ex-wife (Shanna Reed) would get promoted to the anchor desk and start a crusade to have him captured.  Can Detective Dan capture Osborne before Osborne kills every prostitute in the city?  Will Dan be able to protect his ex-wife from the banker?

A film about a greedy banker who kills poor people on the side?  The Banker was released twenty years too early.  If it had been released in 2009, it probably would have an Oscar.  Instead, it was released straight-to-video in 1989 and exiled to late night Cinemax.  Unfortunately, the idea behind The Banker is more interesting than the execution, with most of the kills happening offscreen and any social commentary being rushed through so that the movie can get to the next nude scene.  Not surprisingly, the best thing about The Banker is Robert Forster, who is at his world-weary best.  Forster went through some tough times before Quentin Tarantino resurrected his career with Jackie Brown but movies like The Banker show that Forster never stopped giving good performances.

 

A Movie A Day #289: Night Visitor (1989, directed by Rupert Hitzig)


Billy Colton (Derek Rydall) is a teenager who has a reputation for exaggeration.  Lisa Grace (Shannon Tweed) is his next door neighbor, a high-priced prostitute who does not mind if Billy spies on her.  When Billy tries to tell everyone about his wild new neighbor, no one believes him.  Billy decides to prove his story by grabbing his camera and sneaking next door.  Instead of getting proof that she’s a prostitute, Billy witnesses his neighbor being murdered by a robed Satanist, who just happens to be Zachary Willard (Allen Garfield), Billy’s hated science teacher!  Billy goes to the police with his camera but Captain Crane (Richard Roundtree) points out that Billy forgot to take off the lens cap.

What can Billy do?  He knows that Zachary and his strange brother, Stanley (Michael J. Pollard), are sacrificing prostitutes to Satan but he can’t get anyone to believe him.  Working with his best friend (Teresa Van der Woude) and a burned out ex-cop (Elliott Gould), Billy sets out to stop the Willard Brothers.

Combine Rear Window with late 80s Satanic conspiracy theories and this is the result.  Not as bad as it sounds, Night Visitor is an unfairly obscure movie about Satanism in suburbia. While it has its share of dumb moments (like when Billy uses a watermelon to end a car chase), it also has enough good moments that suggest that Night Visitor is deliberately satirizing the excesses of the Satanic panic that, at the time of filming, was sweeping across the nation.  It also has a once in a lifetime cast.  Along with those already mentioned, keep an eye out for character actor extraordinaire Henry Gibson and future adult film star Teri Weigel.  Allen Garfield is especially good as the evil Mr. Willard.  Any actor can say, “I sacrifice you in the name of Satan.”  It takes a good actor like Allen Garfield to say it without making anyone laugh.

One final note: this movie was originally called Never Cry Devil, which is a much better title than Night Visitor.

A Movie A Day #125: Diamonds (1975, directed by Menahem Golan)


Originally, for today’s entry in Movie A Day, I was hoping to follow up my review of Mad Dog Coll by reviewing Hit The Dutchman.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a review-worthy copy of Hit The Dutchman so, instead, I am going to review another film that was directed by Menahem Golan, Diamonds.

Filmed and set in Golan’s home country of Israel, Diamonds is a heist film.  Richard Roundtree is Archie, an experienced thief who has just been released from prison.  Sally (Barbara Hershey, though she was known as Barbara Seagull when she made this movie) is Archie’s girlfriend.  Robert Shaw plays  Charles Hodgman, the businessman who recruits Roundtree to help him break into a vault located in the Tel Aviv Diamond Exchange Center.  The twist is that the vault was designed by Charles’s twin brother, Earl.  Earl is also played by Robert Shaw and the two of them have an intense sibling rivalry.  If you have ever wanted to see Robert Shaw fight himself in a karate match, Diamonds is the film to see!

(In true Golan fashion, Shaw wears a puffy wig whenever he is supposed to be Earl.)

If he had not died, in 1978, at the tragically young age of 51, Robert Shaw would probably be known as one of our greatest actors.  As it is, he will always be remembered for playing Quint in Jaws and Red Grant in From Russia With Love.  (I am also a fan of his performance in the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.)  Diamonds is typical of the many films in which Shaw was better than what he had to work with.  He gives two good performances but even he is occasionally overshadowed by the swaggering cool and floppy hats of Richard Roundtree.  As for Barbara Seagull/Hershey, she was, as always, beautiful but she had little to do (which was a common problem for her until she rebooted her career with her performance in The Stunt Man).  Shelley Winters is also in this movie, providing tepid comic relief as an American tourist.  (It’s typical of the type of roles in which, following her performance in The Poseidon Adventure, Winters got typecast.)

Barbara Hershey’s beautiful.  Richard Roundtree’s cool.  Robert Shaw is Robert Shaw.  The Israeli location distinguishes it from similar heist films.  The plot may be implausible and the dialogue may be weak but, just as he did with Get Carter, Roy Budd offers up a great score.  Diamonds is typical of many Golan films.  It’s not good but it is damn entertaining.