Escape From Mayberry: Savages (1974, directed by Lee H. Katzin)


Ben (Sam Bottoms) is a gullible college student working at a gas station in the Mojave desert.  Horton Madec (Andy Griffith) is a wealthy attorney from Los Angeles who walks with a limp and who fancies himself a big game hunter.  Madec hires Ben to serve as his guide through the desert.  Madec says that he’s hunting a ram but instead, he ends up shooting and killing an old prospector.  Even after Madec offers to pay him off, Ben wants to go to the police.  Madec gives it some thought and decides to hunt Ben himself.

After forcing Ben to strip down to his shorts, Madec sets him loose in the desert.  As Ben tries to make his way back to civilization, Madec follows close behind and uses his rifle not to kill Ben but instead to keep him from drinking water or taking shelter from the sun.

Savages deserves to better known than it is.  The film does a good job of making you feel as if you’re trapped out in the desert with Ben, trying your damndest to survive while some maniac follows close behind, taunting you and refusing to allow you to get any relief.  Horton Madec is pure evil, a maniac who brags about how he can do anything he wants because he has money and he knows people.  That he’s played by Andy Griffith makes him even more dangerous because you know there’s no way anyone would believe that Andy Griffith took you out to the desert tried to kill you.

After playing the folksy and friendly Andy Taylor for nine seasons on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to leave Mayberry behind by taking on villainous roles in made-for-TV movies like this one and Pray For The Wildcats.  Though he actually started off his film career by playing a villain in A Face In The Crowd, it was still probably a shock for audiences in 1974 to turn on Savages and see Andy Griffith cruelly drinking a martini while another man nearly died of dehydration in front of him.  Griffith goes full psycho in the role of Horton Madec and is totally convincing.  (Of course, audiences preferred the folksy side of Griffith which is why, even after ten years straight of playing bad guys, Griffith still ended up starring in Matlock.)

Even though it’s Griffith’s show, Sam Bottom does okay in the role of Ben.  He has the right look for the character and that’s really all that the part requires.  For the majority of the movie, it’s just Griffith and Bottoms but eventually, James Best shows up as Sheriff Bert Williams.  Five years later, Best would achieve a certain immortality when he was cast as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.

Savages has never gotten an official DVD release but it can be viewed on YouTube, along with Griffith’s other villainous turn from 1974, Pray for the Wildcats.

Back to School Part II #7: Cage Without A Key (dir by Buzz Kulik)


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For the fifth film in my Back To School series of reviews, I watched Cage Without A Key, a made-for-TV movie from 1975.

17 year-old Valerie Smith (Susan Dey) would appear to have everything.  She has a loving mother and a loyal best friend.  She just graduated from high school and has been accepted to a good college.  She’s looking forward to going down to San Francisco for the weekend before starting her summer job.  The future look great and, of course, that means that she’s about to make the biggest mistake of her life.

And she’s going to do it 70s style!

When her car breaks down on the way to San Francisco, she makes the mistake of accepting a ride from a long-haired guy in a Volkswagen microbus.  Buddy Goleta (Sam Bottoms, in full 70s weirdo mode) went to high school with Valerie and appears to have a crush on her.  Buddy also appears to be a little bit crazy himself as he tells everyone that he meets that Valerie is “my old lady.”  Finally, Buddy pulls over to a convenience store and kills everyone inside.  Since Valerie’s in the microbus, she gets arrested along with Buddy.  Since Buddy claims that he and Valerie are lovers, she’s convicted of being an accessory and is sentenced to a … REFORM SCHOOL!

(Cue dramatic music.)

The warden — Mrs. Little (Katharine Helmond) — insists that she’s not running a prison.  Instead, she’s running a very progressive school where the students all happen to be thieves and murderers.  The school even has pleasant euphemisms for all the standard prison film elements.  For instance, no one is put in solitary confinement.  Instead, they’re sent to meditation.

Anyway, while Valerie waits for her dedicated public defender (David Brandon) to prove her innocence and get her out of reform school, she finds herself being approached by the various gangs who run the school.  Valerie says she doesn’t want anything to do with any of that.  She just wants to fly under the radar until she’s set free.  But then she’s approached by a predatory lesbian and, as we all known from watching other prison films, nothing will make you join a gang faster than being approached by a predatory lesbian…

Okay, Cage Without A Key is not exactly Orange Is The New Black.  What it is, however, is a time capsule of the time it was made.  Everything from the slang to the clothes to the attitudes to the squishy, upper class liberalism of Valerie’s lawyer practically screams 1970s.

Add to that, classic film lovers will appreciate the fact that the evil gang leader is named Suzy Kurosawa!

Incidentally, Cage Without A Key was written by Joanna Lee, who readers of this site will probably best remember for playing one of the alien invaders in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #66: Desperate Lives (dir by Robert Michael Lewis)


DL-cov2YouTube, my old friend, you have failed me.

For the longest time, the 1982 anti-drug melodrama Desperate Lives has been available for viewing on YouTube.  I first watched it two years ago, after I read an online article about a scene in which a teenage Helen Hunt takes PCP and jumps through a window.  And, when I watched it, I was stunned.  I knew that the film was going to be over-the-top and silly, largely because it’s hard to imagine how a film featuring a teenage Helen Hunt taking PCP could be anything other than that.  But, even with my experience of watching over the top message movies, nothing could have quite prepared me for Desperate Lives.

So, I figured, for this review, that I’d say a few snarky words about Desperate Lives and then I’d just add something like, “And you can watch it below!”  And then I would embed the entire movie and all of y’all could just click on play and watch a movie on the Lens.

Unfortunately, Desperate Lives has been taken off of YouTube.  I assume the upload violated some sort of copyright thing.  And really, it’s kinda stupid because seriously, Desperate Lives is one of those films that really deserves to be seen for free on YouTube.

Oh well.  You can still watch a video of Helen Hunt jumping through that window.  The video below also features some additional elements from Desperate Lives.

For instance, you get to see Diana Scarwid playing the angriest high school guidance counselor in the world.  Scarwid knows that students like Helen Hunt are using drugs and that her fellow faculty members are turning a blind eye to everything’s that’s happening.  From the minute she first appears on screen, Scarwid is shouting at someone and she doesn’t stop screaming until the film ends.

And you also get to see Doug McKeon, playing Helen Hunt’s brother.  McKeon goes for a drive with his girlfriend, who has just taken PCP herself.  As their car goes flying off a mountain, she says, “Wheeee!”

In the video below, you also get to see that the only reason Helen Hunt used drugs was because her boyfriend begged her to.  That’s a scenario that seems to show up in a lot of high school drug films and it’s strange because it’s something that I’ve never actually seen happen or heard about happening in real life.  In fact, in real life, most users of hard drugs are actually very happy to not share their supply.

Unfortunately, the video below does not feature any scenes of Sam Bottoms as the world’s most charming drug dealer and that’s a shame because he gives the only good performance in the entire film (sorry, Helen!).

Even worse, the video doesn’t include any scenes from the film’s memorably insane conclusion, in which Scarwid searches every single locker in the school and then interrupts a pep rally so she can set everyone’s stash on fire in the middle of the gym.  Making it even better is that all the students are so moved by Scarwid’s final speech that they start tossing all of the drugs that they have on them into the fire.

Which means that the film essentially ends with the entire school getting high off of a huge marijuana bonfire.

No, that scene cannot be found in the video below.  But you can find Helen Hunt jumping through a window so enjoy.

Back To School #11: The Last Picture Show (dir by Peter Bogdanovich)


Monday is the first day of school down here in Dallas so it seems only appropriate that this latest entry in our Back to School series should be a look at one of those most quintessential Texas films ever made, the 1971 best picture nominee, The Last Picture Show.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich and based on a novel by Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show takes place in 1951 and tells the story of two high school seniors, best friends Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane Jackson (Jeff Bridges, reminding us once again why everbody loves him).  Sonny and Duane live in the rural town of Anarene, Texas.  With little to look forward to in the future, beyond perhaps getting a job working in the oil fields, Sonny and Duane are both intent on enjoying their final year of high school.  Sometimes, that means driving down to Mexico for the weekend.  Sometimes, it means going to the only theater in town and seeing a movie.  Most of the time, however, it means hanging out in a pool hall owned by the strict but fatherly Sam (Oscar winner Ben Johnson).  Often times they are accompanied by the intellectually disabled Billy (Sam Bottoms), who responds to everything with a blank smile and spends most of his spare time wandering around with a broom, futilely trying to sweep the dusty streets.

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The charismatic and impetuous Sonny is dating the beautiful and self-centered Jacy Farrow (Cybil Shepherd), who is the daughter of the wealthiest woman in town.  Jacy knows that her cynical mother (Ellen Burstyn) is having an affair with an oil worker named Abilene (Clu Gulager) but she’s more concerned with her own future.  Even though she’s dating Sonny, Jacy still accepts an invitation from the awkward Lester Marlow (played by a memorably goofy Randy Quaid) to attend a naked indoor pool party.  At the party, she meets Bobby Sheen (Gary Brockette), who is rich and will be able to provide her with the future that Duane never will.  However, Bobby tells Jacy that he isn’t interested in her because she’s a virgin.  If nothing else, this gives Jacy a reason to stay with Duane, at least until after they have sex.

Meanwhile, the far more sensitive Sonny ends up having an affair with Ruth Popper (Cloris Leachman, who won an Oscar for her performance in this film), the wife of the high school football coach.  It appears that Sonny truly cares about Ruth but then he finds himself being tempted by none other than his best friend’s girlfriend…

Sonny and Ruth

At heart, The Last Picture Show really is basically a small town soap opera, a Texas version of Peyton Place.  The difference between the two films — beyond the fact that The Last Picture Show just happens to be a 1oo times better than Peyton Place — is that The Last Picture Show doesn’t take place in a beautiful, idealized small town.  Instead, the town of Anarene is a believably bleak location, one that will be familiar to anyone who, like me, grew up in the American southwest.  A good deal of the success of The Last Picture Show is due to the fact that it was actually filmed on location in Archer City, Texas.

(Nothing annoys me more than when I see the mountains of California in the background of a movie that’s supposed to be taking place in North Texas.  We don’t have mountains up here.  For the most part, we don’t even have hills.  The land is flat.  You can see forever, if you know where to look.)

Of course, you can’t talk about The Last Picture Show without talking about Robert Surtees’s stunning black-and-white cinematography.  Not only does the black-and-white remind us that this is a film about a fading way of life but it drives home the fact that Sonny and Duane don’t have much to look forward to.  Growing up in Anarene means they are destined for lives without color or excitement.  In the end, can you really blame them for occasionally acting before they think?

Ben Johnson

Ultimately, the success of The Last Picture Show is due to a lot of things.  This was Peter Bogdanovich’s second film as a director and he did such an excellent job here that he’s basically spent the rest of his career trying to live up to this one film.  (That said, Bodganovich also left his wife for Cybill Shepherd — despite the fact that his wife was the one who suggested that he make this film and cast Cybill in the first place!  Don’t worry though — Polly Platt got her revenge by having a far more successful career than her ex-husband and she even produced Say Anything, a film that we will soon be looking at.)  The screenplay, by McMurtry and Bogdanovich, is full of sharp dialogue and memorable characters.  As for the performers, this is probably one of the best acted films ever made.  Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms play off each other well, Cybill Shepherd is the epitome of casual destructiveness, and Ben Johnson is brilliantly cast as the film’s moral center.  My favorite performance comes from Ellen Burstyn, who delivers every line with just the right combination of contempt and ennui.

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

Ellen Burstyn in The Last Picture Show

If you’re a Texan, The Last Picture Show is one of those films that you simply have to see.  And if you don’t enjoy it and if you don’t relate to at least a few of the characters (I related to Jacy, though I like to think that I’m a lot nicer in the way I treat people), then you’re not a real Texan.

It’s as simple as that.

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