The Ballad of Andy Crocker (1969, directed by George McCowan)


Andy Crocker (Lee Majors) is a earnest young Texan who enlists in Vietnam, is injured in a firefight, and returns home with a purple heart.  Upon landing in California, he discovers that America has changed.  A group of hippies (led by Stuart Margolin, who also wrote this film’s script and the folk-style song that’s played throughout the action) taunts him for wearing his uniform.  After Andy steals a motorcycle from them and makes his way back down to Dallas, he discovers that his girlfriend, Lisa (Joey Heatherton), has left him for another man and that his best friend (played by singer Jimmy Dean) has sold Andy’s business.  Lisa’s mother (Agnes Moorehead) orders Andy to stay away from her family while she’s skeet shooting.  Even though everyone tells him how proud they are of him, no one seems to want Andy around.  Finally, Andy ends up back in California without any direction home.

This made-for-television movie (which was produced by Aaron Spelling) was important in that it was the first film to attempt to explore the issues that would face servicemen as they returned home after serving in an unpopular war.  It was actually meant to be a pilot for a series called Corporal Crocker, which would have followed Andy Crocker as he traveled across the country, Route 66-style.  Since the series wasn’t picked up, The Ballad of Andy Crocker instead becomes a downbeat look at a man discovering that he no longer has any place in the world.  It’s only 72-minutes long so it doesn’t examine any issues in depth but it’s still sincere in its intentions and Lee Majors gives a good performance in the lead role.  Andy Crocker is an interesting character.  Despite the fact that he just returned from fighting in it, he doesn’t seem to have any strong opinion about the war in Vietnam.  He’s hardly a pacifist and he does steal a motorcycle but, at the same time, he’s not a gung ho warrior either.  He’s just an ordinary man who is trying to figure out where he fits in.  By the end of the movie, he’s more scarred by society’s indifference than he has been by the war.

Keep an eye out for Marvin Gaye, who has a small role as Crocker’s best friend from Vietnam.

It’s No Westworld: Futureworld (1976, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


Two years after the Westworld “incident,” (in which a group of robots malfunctioned and murdered hundreds of humans), Delos Amusement Park has reopened and is accepting guests.  Westworld has been permanently shut down but guests can still go to Romanworld and Medeivalworld (despite the fact that it was in Medievalworld that the whole robot rebellion started in the first place).  Delos has added two new worlds: Spaworld and Futureworld.  Spaworld is a spa for people who want to think young and Futureworld is the world of the future, which looks much like 1976, the year that this film was made.

Two reporters, Chuck Browning (Peter Fonda) and Tracy Ballard (Blythe Danner), have been invited to cover the grand reopening of Delos and to hopefully generate some good publicity.  Chuck, however, has reason to believe that there’s something sinister happening at Delos.  While Tracy is busy fantasizing about Yul Brynner, Chuck discovers that Delos is using Futureworld to clone diplomats.

At the end of Futureworld, Peter Fonda gives everyone the finger and that’s really cool but otherwise, this is a forgettable sequel to Westworld.  The whole point of the original Westworld was that the robots didn’t know they were robots but, in Futureworld, the robots not only know what they are but they’re also superfluous to the plot.  There’s no robot revolution in Futureworld nor is there any of Crichton’s concerns about technology run amok.  Instead, it’s all about clones and a predictable political conspiracy.

The main issue facing the makers of this film was how could they do a sequel to Michael Crichton’s unexpected hit when Westworld‘s main attraction, Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger, was thoroughly destroyed at the end of the first film.  It would not make any sense for anyone to have reactivated the robot.  Their solution was to bring Brynner in for a cameo in which he appeared in one of Tracy’s dreams.  Sadly, why they thought it was a good idea to have Tracy develop an erotic fixation on a killer robot and then, just as abruptly, abandon the idea is not for us to know.  They would have been better off leaving Brynner out of the film entirely because his presence just reminds us that Futureworld is no Westworld.

Automotive Stardom: The California Kid (1974, directed by Richard T. Heffron)


In 1973, a customized 1934 Ford three-window coup appeared on the cover of the November issue of Custom Rod.  The car had been created by legendary customizer Pete Chapouris and it was called The California Kid.  The cover caught the attention of television producer Howie Horowitz, who thought that maybe the car could become a star.

A year later, the car starred in it’s own made-for-TV movie.  Naturally, that movie was called The California Kid.

The California Kid takes place in 1958 in the small town of Clarksberg.  Clarksberg is known for being a town that does not tolerate speeders.  Sheriff Roy Childress (Vic Morrow) lost his wife and daughter to a speeder and, ever since, he’s become a fanatic about making sure that people respect the speed limits.  He’ll give a ticket to anyone who he sees going too fast.  He’ll even impound your car.  And if you don’t learn your lesson or if you try to outrun him, he’ll get behind your car, give it a push, and send both you and your vehicle plunging over the side of a mountain.

That’s what happens to Don McCord (Joe Estevez), a Marine who was just trying to get back to back to his base on time.  After Don and his car go over the side of a cliff, the official ruling is that it was an accident.  However, Don’s brother, Michael (Martin Sheen, real-life brother of Joe Estevez), doesn’t buy that.  Determined to prove that his brother was murdered, Micheal rolls into town, behind the wheel of the California Kid.

The California Kid is a typical 70s car chase movie.  There’s not much going on other than the sheriff chasing the Michael and the California Kid.  Martin Sheen coasts through the movie, doing the James Dean impersonation that he perfected in the previous year’s Badlands and Vic Morrow plays his thousandth sadistic authority figure.  The supporting cast is full of familiar names who don’t get to do much.  Michelle Phillips plays the waitress who falls in love with Martin Sheen.  (It’s always a waitress.)  Stuart Margolin is Morrow’s deputy and keep an eye out for Nick Nolte, playing a mechanic.  Interestingly, The California Kid was written by Richard Compton who, a year later, would direct Notle in his first starring role in the 1975 car chase film, Return to Macon County.  Of course, the real star of the movie is the car and the California Kid earns its star billing.  The movie might not be anything special but there’s no way you can watch it and not want to drive that car.

This is a made-for-TV movie so you won’t hear any profanity and the characters are all as simple can be.  However, there are enough shots of cars going over cliffs to keep chase enthusiasts entertained.

Happy Birthday Charles Bronson!: THE STONE KILLER (Columbia 1973)


cracked rear viewer

Charles Buchinsky was born November 3, 1921 in the coal-country town of Ehrenfield, PA to a Lithuanian immigrant father and second-generation mother. He didn’t learn to speak English until he was a teen, and joined the Air Force at age 23, serving honorably in WWII. Returning home, young Charles was bitten by the acting bug and made his way to Hollywood, changing his last name to ‘Bronson’ in the early fifties. Charles Bronson spent decades toiling in supporting parts before becoming a name-above-the-title star in Europe.

By the 1970’s, Bronson had begun his long run as an action star. THE STONE KILLER capitalizes on the popularity of Cop and Mafia movies of the era, with Our Man Bronson as Lou Torrey, a Dirty Harry-type who shoots first and asks questions later. After he kills a 17-year-old gunman in the pre-credits opening, Torrey is raked over the coals by the New…

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Bronson’s Revenge: Death Wish (1974, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote “Dirty” Harry Callahan, “I’m all broken up about his rights.”

In 1972, a novel by Brian Garfield was published.  The novel was about a meek New York City accountant named Paul Benjamin.  After Paul’s wife is murdered and his daughter is raped, Paul suffers a nervous breakdown.  A self-described bleeding heart liberal, Paul starts to stalk the streets at night while carrying a gun.  He is hunting muggers.  At first, he just kills the muggers who approach him but soon, he starts to deliberately set traps.  Sinking into insanity, Paul becomes just as dangerous as the men he is hunting.  Garfield later said that the book was inspired by two real-life incidents, one in which his wife’s purse was stolen and another in which his car was vandalized.  Garfield said that his initial response was one of primitive anger.  He wondered what would happen if a man had these rageful thoughts and could not escape them.

The title of that novel was Death Wish.  Though it was never a best seller, it received respectful reviews and Garfield subsequently sold the film rights.  At first, Sidney Lumet was attached to direct and, keeping with Garfield’s portrayal of Paul Benjamin, Jack Lemmon was cast as the unlikely vigilante.

Lumet, ultimately, left the project so that he could concentrate on another film about crime in New York City, Serpico.  When Lumet left, Jack Lemmon also dropped out of the film.  Lumet was replaced by Michael Winner, a director who may not have been as thoughtful as Lumet but who had a solid box office record and a reputation for making tough and gritty action films.

Winner immediately realized that audiences would not be interested in seeing an anti-vigilante film.  Instead of casting an actor with an intellectual image, like Jack Lemmon, Winner instead offered the lead role (now named Paul Kersey and no longer an accountant but an architect) to Charles Bronson.  When Winner told Bronson that the script was about a man who shot muggers, Bronson replied, “I’d like to do that.”

“The script?” Winner asked.

“No, shoot muggers.”

At the time that he was cast, Charles Bronson was 52 years old.  He was the biggest star in the world, except for in America where he was still viewed as being a B-talent at best.  Bronson was known for playing tough, violent men who were not afraid to use violence to accomplish their goals.  (Ironically, in real life, Bronson was as much of an ardent liberal as Paul Kersey was meant to be at the beginning of the movie.)  Among those complaining that Charles Bronson was all wrong for Paul Kersey was Brian Garfield.  However, Bronson accepted the role and the huge box office success of Death Wish finally made him a star in America.

To an extent, Brian Garfield was right.  Charles Bronson was a better actor than he is often given credit for but, in the early scenes of Death Wish, he does seem miscast.  When Paul is first seen frolicking with his wife (Hope Lange) in Hawaii, Bronson seems stiff and awkward.  In New York City, when Paul tells his right-wing colleague (William Redfield) that “my heart does bleed for the less fortunate,” it doesn’t sound natural.  But once Paul finds out that his wife has been murdered and his daughter, Carol (Kathleen Tolan), has been raped, Paul gets mad and Bronson finally seems comfortable in the role.

In both the book and the original screenplay, both the murder and the rape happened off-screen.  Never a subtle director, Winner instead opted to show them in a brutal and ugly scene designed to get the audience as eager to shoot muggers as Bronson was.  Today, the power of the scene is diluted by the presence of Jeff Goldblum, making his screen debut as a very unlikely street thug.  Everyone has to start somewhere and Goldblum got his start kicking Hope Lange while wearing a hat that made him look like he belonged in an Archie comic.

With his wife dead and his daughter traumatized, Paul discovers that no one can help him get justice.  The police have no leads.  His son-in-law (Steven Keats) is a weak and emotional mess.  (As an actor, some of Bronson’s best moments are when Paul makes no effort to hide how much he loathes his son-in-law.)  When a mugger approaches Paul shortly after his wife’s funeral, Paul shocks himself by punching the mugger in the face.

When Paul is sent down to Arizona on business, he meets Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin), a land developer who calls New York a “toilet” and who takes Paul to see a wild west show.  Later at a gun club, Paul explains that he was a conscientious objects during the Korean War but he knows how to shoot.  His father was a hunter and Paul grew up around guns.  When Paul returns to New York, Ames gives him a present, a revolver.  Paul is soon using that revolver to bring old west justice to the streets of New York City.

As muggers start to show up dead, the NYPD is outraged that a vigilante is stalking the street.  Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is assigned to bring the vigilante in.  But the citizens of New York love the vigilante.  Witnesses refuse to give an accurate description of Paul.  When Paul is wounded, a young patrolman (Christopher Guest, making almost as unlikely a film debut as Jeff Goldblum) conspires to keep Paul’s revolver from being turned over as evidence.

The critics hated Death Wish, with many of them calling it an “immoral” film.  Brian Garfield was so disgusted by how Winner changed his story that he wrote a follow-up novel in which Paul is confronted by an even more dangerous vigilante who claims to have been inspired by him.  Audiences, however, loved it.  Death Wish was one of the top films at the box office and it spawned a whole host of other vigilante films.

Death Wish is a crude movie, without any hint of subtlety and nuance.  It is also brutally effective, as anyone who has ever felt as if they were the victim of a crime can attest.  In a complicated and often unfair world, Kersey’s approach may not be realistic or ideal but it is emotionally cathartic.  Watching Death Wish, it is easy to see why critics hated it and why audiences loved it.

It is also to see why the movie made Bronson a star.  Miscast in the role or not, Bronson exudes a quiet authority and determination that suggests that if anyone could single-handedly clean-up New York City, it’s him.  An underrated actor, Bronson’s best moment comes after he punches his first mugger and he triumphantly reenters his apartment.  After he commits his first killing, Bronson gets another good scene where he is so keyed up that he collapses to the floor and then staggers into the bathroom and throws up.  Garfield may have complained that the Death Wish made his madman into a hero but Bronson’s best moments are the ones the suggest Paul has gone mad.  The real difference between the book and the movie is that the movie portrays madness as a necessary survival skill.

This Friday, a new version of Death Wish will be playing in theaters.  Directed by Eli Roth, this version starts Bruce Willis as Dr. Paul Kersey.  Will the new Death Wish be as effective as the original?  Judging from the trailer, I doubt it.  Bruce Willis or Charles Bronson?  I’ll pick Bronson every time.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns in Death Wish II!

Bronson’s Best: The Stone Killer (1973, directed by Michael Winner)


Stone_killerAfter tough New York detective Lou Torrey (Charles Bronson) lands in hot water for shooting and killing a teenage cop killer, he moves to Los Angeles and gets a job with the LAPD.  Working under an unsympathetic supervisor (Norman Fell), saddled with an incompetent partner (Ralph Waite), and surrounded by paper pushing bureaucrats, Torrey still tries to uphold the law and dispense justice whenever he can.  When a heroin dealer is murdered while in Torrey’s custody, Torrey suspects that it might be a part of a larger conspiracy, involving mobster Al Vescari (Martin Balsam).

Vescari is plotting something big.  It has been nearly 40 since the “Sicilian Vespers,” the day when Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello, and Busy Siegel killed all of the original mafia dons at the same time.  Viscari has invited mafia leaders from across the country to attend a special anniversary dinner.  During the dinner, all of Vescari’s rivals will be assassinated.  To keep things a secret, Vescari will not be using any of his usual hitmen.  Instead, he has contracted a group of mentally unstable Vietnam vets, led by Lawrence (Stuart Margolin).

Charles Bronson has always been an underrated film star.  His legacy has been tarnished by the cheap films he made for Cannon and, unlike Clint Eastwood, he never got a chance to really take control of his career and reinvent his image.  But during the 1970s, not even Clint Eastwood was a more convincing action star than Charles Bronson.  Bronson may have never been a great actor but he was an authentic tough guy with a physical presence that dominated the screen.

It was during this period that Bronson made his first four movies with director Michael Winner.  Though Death Wish and The Mechanic are the best known, The Stone Killer may be the best.  Tough, gritty, and action-packed with a great car chase, The Stone Killer was filmed on location in Los Angeles and some of the best parts are just the scenes of Bronson awkwardly interacting with the local, California culture.  If you have ever wanted to see Charles Bronson deal with a bunch of hippies, this is the film to see.  The Stone Killer also has more of social conscience than the usual 70s cop film, with Bronson’s character not only condemning excessive police brutality but also his racist partner.

(Ironically, Bronson and Winner would follow The Stone Killer with Death Wish, a film that many critics condemned as being racist and which suggested that the police were not being brutal enough.)

The other thing that sets The Stone Killer apart is that it has a great cast, featuring several actors who would go on to find success on television.  Balsam, Fell, and especially Waite and Margolin are all great.  Keep an eye out for a very young John Ritter, playing one of the only cops in the film who is not portrayed as being either corrupt or incompetent.

Though it may not be as well-known as some of his other action films, The Stone Killer is one of Bronson’s best.

Guilty Pleasure No. 18: Class (dir by Lewis John Carlino)


Tonight, I’ve got insomnia.

Since I realized I wasn’t going to get any sleep, I decided I might as well watch a random movie via Encore On Demand.  That movie turned out to be Class, a dramedy from 1983.  (I love dramedies, especially when I’ve got insomnia.)  I just finished watching it about 30 minutes ago and what can I say?  If there’s any film that deserves to be known as a guilty pleasure, it’s Class.

Class tells the story of two prep school roommates.  Skip (Rob Lowe) is rich  and spoiled.  Jonathan (Andrew McCarthy) is poor but brilliant.  As the result of getting a perfect score on his SAT, Jonathan has already received a scholarship to Harvard.  Their friendship gets off on a rocky start.  Skip locks Jonathan outside while Jonathan is wearing black lingerie.  Jonathan responds with a fake suicide.  (Boys are so weird.)  Not surprisingly, Jonathan and Skip become best friends and even share their darkest secrets.  Skip admits to killing a man.  Jonathan confesses to cheating on his SAT.  One of the two friends is lying.  Try to guess which one.

When Skip also discovers that Jonathan is a virgin, Skip makes it his mission to help his friend get laid.  Skip pays for Jonathan to spend a weekend in Chicago.  While there, Jonathan meets an older woman named Ellen (Jacqueline Bisset).  Soon, Jonathan and Ellen are having a torrid affair.

Once Christmas break arrives, Skip takes Jonathan home with him.  Jonathan meets Skip’s parents.  Guess who turns out to be Skip’s mom.

Meanwhile, an officious investigator (Stuart Margolin) has shown up on campus.  What is he investigating?  SAT fraud, of course.

Class is a weirdly disjointed movie.  On the one hand, it attempts to tell a rather melancholic coming-of-age tale, in which a naive young man learns about love from a beautiful but sad older woman.  (This part of the film perhaps would have been more effective if there had been a single spark of chemistry between Andrew McCarthy and Jacqueline Bisset.)  On the other hand, it also wants to be a heartfelt comedy about two best friends who come from opposite worlds.  And then, on the third hand (that’s right — this movie has three hands!), it wants to be a raunchy teen comedy, complete with a stuffy headmaster, misogynistic dialogue, gratuitous nudity, and a lengthy scene where all of the students attempt to get rid of all of their weed and pills because they’ve been incorrectly told that there’s a narc on campus.  That’s three different movies being crammed into a 90-minute film.  Not surprisingly, the end result is an uneven mishmash of different themes and styles.

And yet, as uneven as the film may be,  I still enjoyed it.  As I watched, I knew that I should have been far more critical and nitpicky about the film’s many flaws but the movie itself is just so damn likable that I found myself enjoying it despite myself.  Ultimately — like many guilty pleasures — Class is a film that is best appreciated as a portrait of the time it was made.  Everything from the questionable fashion choices of the characters to the film’s not-so-subtle celebration of wealth and narcissism, serves to remind the viewer that Class was made in the 80s.

Finally, Class should be seen just for its cast.  It’s undeniably odd to see an impossibly young and goofy-looking John Cusack making his film debut here as a rather snotty student named Roscoe.  While Andrew McCarthy doesn’t have much chemistry with Jacqueline Bisset, he still gives a good performance and is simply adorable with his messy hair and glasses.  And finally, who can resist young Rob Lowe, who was just as handsome in Class as he would be 30 years later in Parks and Recreation?

Class did not cure my insomnia.

But I’m still glad I watched it.

Previous Guilty Pleasures:

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls