Guilty As Charged (1991, directed by Sam Irvin)


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Kalin (Rod Steiger) is a crazy old religious fanatic who is rich enough to own a meatpacking plant and hire goons to work for him.  Underneath the meatpacking plant, he has a secret prison and an electric chair that he uses to electrocute people who he feels have escaped justice.  Helping out Kalin is a crazy preacher, played by Isaac Hayes (!), who waxes philosophically about how much he loves the smell of burning flesh.

While Kalin and the gang are executing people below ground, parole officer Kimberly (Heather Graham) is above ground and wondering why so many ex-cons are mysteriously vanishing.  Kimberly is worried that someone may be executing them but then she gets distracted by a politician named Stanford (Lyman Ward).  Stanford wants Kimberly to work on his campaign because she looks like Heather Graham and he’s a sleazy politico.

Meanwhile, a man named Hamilton (Michael Beach) has escaped from prison.  Hamilton claims that he was framed for a murder that he didn’t commit but no one is willing to believe him.  However, Hamilton is telling the truth and the murder was actually committed by Stanford!  The only people who know that Stanford is the murderer are Stanford, his wife (Lauren Hutton!!), and his maid (Zelda Rubinstein!!!).

It all leads to one question: How did all of these talented people all end up in this crappy film!?

The strange thing about Guilty As Charged is that, even though the film is centered around the death penalty, the film itself doesn’t seem to have any opinion on the issue.  Kalin and his followers are crazy religious fanatics who claim that they’re doing God’s work by executing people and Hamilton is an innocent man who has been marked for death so you would think that the movie is against the death penalty.  But then, in a twist that makes no sense, Kalin reveals that he knows that Hamilton is innocent and he’s only using him to get to Stanford and suddenly, the film is for the death penalty.  Kimberly is worried that someone is targeting ex-cons but, by the end of the movie, she’s targeting ex-cons herself even though nothing’s happened that should have made her change her mind.

Guilty as Charged is technically a comedy, though most of the jokes are too thuddingly obvious to provoke even the slightest of a smile.  Hayes wins some laughs, just because he seems like he’s having fun.  Rod Steiger bellows as if he’s getting paid by the decibel and doesn’t seem to be having any fun at all.  Guilty as Charged isn’t funny and it’s not thought-provoking but at least it’s got Isaac Hayes.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Doctor Zhivago (dir by David Lean)


Klaus Kinski is the main reason to watch the 1965 film, Doctor Zhivago.

The legendarily difficult and erratic Mr. Kinski shows up about halfway through this 3-and-a-half hour film.  He plays a cynical and unstable prisoner on a train.  The train is full of passengers who are escaping from Moscow and heading for what they hope will be a better and more stable life in the Ural Mountains.  (The film takes place during the Communist revolution and the subsequent purges.)  That Kinski taunts everyone on the train is not a surprise.  Both Werner Herzog and David Schmoeller (who directed Kinski in Crawlspace) have made documentaries in which they both talked about how difficult it was to work with Kinski and how several film crews apparently came close to murdering Klaus Kinski several times throughout his career.

Instead, what’s surprising about Kinski’s performance is that he’s even there to begin with.  Doctor Zhivago is an extremely long and extremely stately film.  It’s one of those films where almost every actor gives a somewhat restrained performance.  It’s a film where almost every shot is tastefully composed and where the action often slows down to a crawl so that we can better appreciate the scenery.  It’s a film that stops for an intermission and which opens with a lengthy musical overture.  In short, this is a film of old school craftsmanship and it’s the last place you would expect to find Klaus Kinski luring about.

When he does show up, you’re happy to see him.  Even though he’s only onscreen for about five minute, Kinski gives the film a jolt of much-needed energy.  After hours of watching indecisive characters talk and talk and talk, Kinski pops up and basically, “Screw this, I hate everything.”  And it’s exciting because it’s one of the few time that Doctor Zhivago feels unpredictable.  It’s one of the few times that it feels like a living work of art instead of just a very pretty but slightly stuffy composition.

Just from reading all that, you may think that I don’t like Doctor Zhivago but that’s actually not the case. It’s a heavily flawed film and you have to be willing to make a joke or two if you’re going to try to watch the whole thing in just one sitting but it’s still an interesting throwback to a very specific time in film history.  Doctor Zhivago was designed to not only be a spectacle but to also convince audiences that 1) TV was worthless and that 2) Hollywood craftsmanship was still preferable to the art films that were coming out of Europe.  At a time when television and independent European cinema was viewed as being a real threat to the future of the film industry, Doctor Zhivago was a film that was meant to say, “You can’t get this on your black-and-white TV!  You can only get this from Hollywood where, dammit, people still appreciate a good establishing shot and treat the production code with respect!”  Even today, some of the spectacle is still impressive.  The beautiful shots of the countryside are still often breath-taking.  The scenes of two lovers living in an ice filled house are still incredibly lovely to look at.  The musical score is still sweepingly romantic and impressive.

It’s the story where the film gets in trouble.  Omar Sharif plays Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and a poet who falls in love with Lara (Julie Christie) while Russia descends into chaos.  The Czar is overthown.  The communists come to power and prove themselves to be just as hypocritical as the Romanovs.  The revolutionary Pasha (Tom Courtenay, bearing a distracting resemblance to Roddy McDowall) is in love with Lara and helps to bring about the revolution but is then declared an enemy of the people during the subsequent purges.  The craven Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) also wants to possess Lara and he’s so corrupt that he manages to thrive under both the Czar and the communists.  Alec Guinness plays Yuri’s half-brother and is the most British Russian imaginable.  Doctor Zhivago is based on a Russian novel so there’s a lot of characters running around and they’re all played by a distinguished cast of international thespians.  However, none of them are as interesting as the scenery.

As for the two main actors, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie convince you that they’re in love but not much else.  Sharif is never convincing as a poet and he feels miscast as a man who spends most of his time thinking.  Reportedly, Lean’s first choice for the role was Peter O’Toole and it’s easy to imagine O’Toole in the part.  But O’Toole had already done Lawrence of Arabia with Lean and didn’t feel like subjecting himself to another year of Lean’s notoriously prickly direction.  So, the role went to O’Toole co-star, Sharif.   Julie Christie turned down Thunderball to do both this film and Darling, for which she would subsequently win an Oscar.

(Speaking of the Oscars, Doctor Zhivago was nominated for Best Picture and, though it won five other Oscars, it lost the big prize to The Sound of Music, of all things.  1965 really wasn’t a great year for the Oscars.  The only 1965 Best Picture nominee that still feels like it really deserved to be nominated is Darling.  Of the other nominees, Ship of Fools is ponderous and A Thousand Clowns is almost unbearably annoying.  And The Sound of Music …. well, I prefer the Carrie Underwood version.)

Doctor Zhivago is a big, long, epic film.  It’s lovely to look at and it has a few nice scenes mixed in with a bunch of scenes that seem to go on forever.  In the conflict between the state and the individual, it comes down firmly on the side of the individual and that’s a good thing.  (The communist government attempts to suppress Yuri’s love poems because they celebrate the individual instead of society.  And though the government might be able to destroy Yuri’s life, they can’t destroy his spirit.  Again, it’s a message that would have worked better with a more thoughtful lead actor but still, it’s a good message.)  It’s a flawed film but watch it for the spectacle.  Watch it for Klaus Kinski.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: In the Heat of the Night (dir by Norman Jewison)


The 1967 film, In the Heat of the Night, tells the story of two very different men.

Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) is the police chief of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi.  In many ways, Gillespie appears to the epitome of the bigoted Southern cop.  He’s overweight.  He loses his temper easily.  He chews a lot of gum.  He knows everyone in town and automatically distrusts anyone who he hasn’t seen before, especially if that person happens to be a black man or from the north.

Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) is a black man from the north.  He’s a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department and he’s as cool and controlled as Gillespie is temperamental and uncouth.  Tibbs has no patience for the casual racism that is epitomized by lawmen like Chief Gillespie.  When Gillespie says that Virgil is a “fancy name” for a black and asks what people call Virgil in Philadelphia, Virgil declares, “They call me Mister Tibbs!,” with an authority that leaves no doubt that he expects Gillespie to do the same.

Together …. THEY SOLVE CRIMES!

For once, that old joke is correct.  When a Chicago industrialist named Phillip Colbert is discover murdered in Sparta, Chief Gillespie heads up the investigation and, assuming that the murderer must be an outsider, orders Deputy Wood (Warren Oates) to check out the train station for any suspicious characters.  When Wood arrives at the station, he discovers Virgil standing on the platform.  Virgil is simply waiting for his train so that he can get back home to Philadelphia.  However, Wood promptly arrests him.  Gilespie accuses him of murdering Colbert, just to discover that Virgil’s a police detective from Philadelphia.

Though neither wants to work with the other, that’s exactly what Gillespie and Virgil are forced to do as they investigate Colbert’s murder.  Colbert was planning on building a factory in Sparta and his wife (Lee Grant) makes it clear that, if Sparta wants the factory and the money that comes with it, Virgil must be kept on the case.  Over the course of the investigation, Gillespie and Virgil come to a weary understanding as both of them are forced to confront their own preconceived notions about both the murder and life in Sparta.  In the end, if it’s impossible for them to truly become friends, they do develop a weary respect for each other.  That is perhaps the best that one could have hoped for in 1967.

I have to admit that it took me a few viewings before I really appreciated In the Heat of the Night.  Though this film won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967, it’s always suffered when compared to some of the films that it beat.  One can certainly see that the film was superior to Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  But was it a better film than The Graduate or Bonnie and Clyde?  Did Rod Steiger really deserve to win Best Actor over Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty?  (Amazingly, Poitier wasn’t even nominated.)

To be honest, I still feel that In The Heat of the Night was probably the 3rd best of the 5 films nominated that year, superior to the condescending Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner but nowhere near as groundbreaking as Bonnie and Clyde or The Graduate.  The first time I watched In the Heat of the Night, I thought Steiger blustered a bit too much and the film’s central mystery didn’t really hold together and, to a large extent, I still feel like that.

But, at the same time, there’s a lot to appreciate about In the Heat of the Night.  On subsequent viewings, I came to better appreciate the way that director Norman Jewison, editor Hal Ashby, and cinematographer Haskwell Wexler created and maintained an atmosphere that was so thick that you can literally feel the Mississippi humidity while watching the film.  I came to appreciate the supporting cast, especially Warren Oates, Lee Grant, Scott Wilson, Anthony James, and Larry Gates.  (Gates especially makes an impression in his one scene, playing an outwardly genteel racist who nearly cries when Tibbs reacts to his slap by slapping him back.)  I also came to appreciate the fact that, while the white cop/black cop partnership has subsequently become a bit of a cliche, it was new and even controversial concept in 1967.

And finally, I came to better appreciate Sidney Poitier’s performance as Virgil.  Poitier underplays Virgil, giving a performance of tightly controlled rage.  While Steiger yells his way through the film, Poitier emphasizes that Virgil is always thinking.  As in the same year’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Poitier plays a dignified character but, here, that dignity is Virgil’s way of defying the demands and expectations of men like Gillespie.  When Virgil does strike back, it’s a cathartic moment because we understand how many times he’s had to hold back.

In the Heat of the Night may not have been the best film of 1967 but it’s still one worth watching.

Film Review: Al Capone (dir by Richard Wilson)


The year is 1919 and a brutish young man named Al (played by Rod Steiger) has just arrived in Chicago.  He’s got a new job, working for the city’s top mobster, Johnny Torrio (Nehemiah Persoff).  Torrio is the second-in-command to Big Jim Colosimo (Joe De Santis) and is impressed enough by the young Al to take him under his wing.

It’s an exciting time to be a gangster in Chicago because prohibition is about to become the law of the land.  Alcohol is about to become illegal, which means that there will soon be an unregulated underground of people smuggling booze into the United States and selling it in speakeasies across the land.  Those speakeasies are going to be need men to watch the door and to toss out troublemakers and it turns out that’s a perfect job for someone who isn’t afraid of violence.

Someone like Al, for instance.

It’s while Al is working as bouncer that he receives a long and deep gash across his face.  When the wound heals, it leaves him with the scar that will come to define him for the rest of his life.  As much as he hates the nickname “Scarface,” it’s what Al Capone will be known as.

The 1959 film, Al Capone, follows Capone as he works his way up the ladder of the Chicago underworld until he eventually finds himself sitting atop an empire of corruption and crime.  Along the way Capone kills the majority of his rivals and finds the time to fall in love with Maureen Flannery (Fay Spain), the widow of one of his victims.

Well, perhaps love is the wrong word.  As played by Rod Steiger, Al Capone isn’t really capable of loving anyone but himself.  This film does not provide us with the superslick or diabolically clever Capone that has appeared in other gangster movies.  Instead, Steiger plays Capone as almost being a caged animal.  Capone comes to power through violence and betrayal and he uses the same techniques to hold onto power.  The film suggests that the secret of his success was his complete lack of conscience but that the same arrogant stupidity that makes him so fearsome also leaves him doomed to failure.  There’s really nothing subtle about Steiger’s performance but then again, there was probably nothing subtle about Al Capone, either.  Steiger’s tendency to overact every moment works well in the role of a man who constantly seems to be striking out at anyone who makes the mistake of getting too close to him.

Though many films had featured characters based on Capone, Al Capone was the first biographical film to actually be made about the infamous leader of the Chicago Outfit.  (Up until the mid-50s, the Hollywood Production Code expressly forbade anyone from portraying a “real” gangster in a movie.)  With the exception of the character of Maureen Flannery (who was a heavily fictionalized stand-in for Capone’s then-living widow), Al Capone is fairly faithful to the know facts of Capone’s life.  The film not only includes most of Capone’s violent acts (i.e., the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) but it also explores both how Capone was protected by Chicago’s corrupt political establishment and how prohibition actually enabled the activities that it was meant to prevent.  Director Richard Wilson directs in a semi-documentary style and the film’s harsh black-and-white images capture the idea of a shadowy world hidden away from “respectable” society.  It’s a fast-paced film and fans of classic character acting will be happy to see James Gregory as an honest cop and Martin Balsam as a not-at-all honest reporter.

If you’re looking to put together a quick cinematic history lesson about the origins of the Mafia before you watch Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman later this year, Al Capone is a worthwhile addition to your curriculum.

A Movie A Day #355: F.I.S.T. (1978, directed by Norman Jewison)


Sylvester Stallone is Jimmy Hoffa!

Actually, Stallone plays Johnny Kovak, a laborer who becomes a union organizer in 1939.  Working with him is his best friend, Abe Belkin (David Huffman).  In the fight for the working man, Abe refuses to compromise to either the bosses or the gangsters who want a piece of union.  Johnny is more pragmatic and willing to make deals with ruthless mobsters like Vince Doyle (Kevin Conway) and Babe Milano (Tony Lo Bianco).  Over thirty years, both Johnny and Abe marry and start families.  Both become powerful in the union.  When Johnny discovers that union official Max Graham (Peter Boyle) is embezzling funds, Johnny challenges him for the presidency.  When a powerful U.S. senator (Rod Steiger) launches an investigation into F.I.S.T. corruption, both Johnny and Abe end up marked for death.

Obviously based on the life and mysterious disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, F.I.S.T. was one of two films that Stallone made immediately after the surprise success of Rocky.  (The other was Paradise Alley.)  F.I.S.T. features Stallone in one of his most serious roles and the results are mixed.  In the film’s quieter scenes, especially during the first half, Stallone is surprisingly convincing as the idealistic and morally conflicted Kovak.  Stallone is less convincing when Kovak has to give speeches.  If F.I.S.T. were made today, Stallone could probably pull off the scenes of the aged, compromised Johnny but in 1978, he was not yet strong enough as an actor.  Far better is the rest of the cast, especially Conway, Lo Bianco, and Boyle.  If you do see F.I.S.T., keep an eye on the actor playing Johnny’s son.  Though he was credited as Cole Dammett, he grew up to be Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The box office failures of both F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley led Stallone back to his most famous role with Rocky II.  And the rest is history.

 

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.