Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969, directed by Abraham Polonsky)

In 1908, a Paiute Indian named Willie (Robert Blake) has fallen in love with a white woman named Lola (Katharine Ross).  After Lola’s father discovers Willie and Lola together, Willie shoots him.  Willie claims that the shooting was in self-defense while the white citizens of California insist that it was cold-blooded murder, motivated by a tribal custom that would allow Willie to claim Lola as his wife upon the death of her father.  Willie and Lola go on the run, trying to escape through the Morongo Valley.

Because President Taft is scheduled to make a trip to the area, the locals are eager for Willie Boy to either be captured or killed.  Several posses form, all intent on tracking Willie down.  A humane deputy sheriff named Cooper (Robert Redford) reluctantly leads the search for Willie.  Cooper’s occasional lover is a school teacher named Elizabeth (Susan Clark) who insists that Cooper rescue Lola from Willie.  The only problem is that Lola doesn’t want to be rescued and Willie would rather die than surrender to the white men.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is one of those revisionist westerns that were all the rage in the late 60s and the early 70s.  (The same year that he led a posse in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, Robert Redford also tried to outrun a posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.Willie Boy gets off to a good start, showing how Willie has to spend almost every hour of the day dealing with prejudice and racism.  The film does a good job of showing that even “liberal” whites, like Elizabeth, are capable of being prejudiced.  There are hints that Cooper and Willie share a mutual respect and both Blake and Redford do a good job portraying the weary respect that the lawman and the outlaw have for each other.

Things start to fall apart when Willie shoots Lola’s father.  The scene is shot so confusingly that it’s hard to know what exactly happened and it feels like a cop out.  Rather than definitely saying whether Willie had no choice but to shoot Lola’s father or that Willie intentionally committed murder, the scene tries to have it both ways and it doesn’t work.  Once the chase begins, the movie is equally split between Cooper and the posse and Willie and Lola and the end result is that the two main characters end up getting short changed.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was directed by Abraham Polonsky, a screenwriter who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era.  While this is definitely a film made from a left-wing perspective, its actual message still feels muddled.  Willie is the driving force behind the plot but the film seems to be more interested in the less intriguing Cooper.  The film ends on a note of ambiguity, which perhaps felt daring in 1969 but today, just feels like another cop out.  Despite a great performance from Blake and a better-than-usual one from Redford, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is an unfortunate misfire.

City on Fire (1979, directed by Alvin Rakoff)

In an unnamed city somewhere in the midwest, Herman Stover (Jonathan Welsh) is fired from his job at an oil refinery.  Herman does what any disgruntled former employee would do.  He runs around the refinery and opens up all the valves and soon, the entire location is covered in a combustible mix of oil and chemicals.  One spark is all it takes for the refinery to explode and the entire city to turn into a raging inferno.

While Fire Chief Risley (Henry Fonda, getting a special “And starring” credit for doing what probably amounted to a few hours of work) sits in his office and gives orders to his subordinates, Dr. Frank Whitman (Barry Newman) cares for the injured at the city’s new hospital.  Also at the hospital is Mayor William Dudley (Leslie Nielsen) and local celebrity Diana Brockhurst-Lautrec (Susan Clark), who is having an affair with the mayor.  Diana also went to high school with Herman and he still has a crush on her.  When he shows up at the hospital to try to hit on her, he’s roped into working as a paramedic.  Also helping out at the hospital is Nurse Shelley Winters.  (The character may be named Andrea Harper but she’s played by Shelley Winters and therefore, she is Shelley Winters.)  At the local television station, news producer Jimbo (James Franciscus) tries to keep his anchorwoman, Maggie Grayson (Ava Gardner), sober enough to keep everyone up to date on how much longer the city is going to be on fire.

Mostly because it was featured on an early pre-Comedy Central episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, City on Fire has a reputation for being a terrible movie but, as far as 70s disaster films are concerned, it’s not that bad.  The special effects are actually pretty impressive, especially during the first half of the film and there’s really not a weak link to be found in the cast.  It’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen playing a serious role but, before Airplane! gave him a chance to display his skill for deadpan comedy, he specialized in playing stuffy and boring authority figures.  He actually does a good job as Mayor Dudley and it’s not the film’s fault that, for modern audiences, it’s impossible to look at Leslie Nielsen without instinctively laughing.  Of course, there is a scene towards the end where Leslie Nielsen picks up a fire hose and starts spraying people as they come out of the hospital and it was hard not to laugh at that because it felt like a scene straight from The Naked Gun.

What the film does suffer from is an overabundance of cliches and bad dialogue.  From the minute the movie starts, you know who is going to live and who isn’t and sometimes, City on Fire tries too hard to give everyone a connection.  It’s believable that Herman would be stupid enough to start a fire because we all know that happens in the real world.  What’s less believable is that, having started the fire, Herman would then go to the hospital and keep asking Diana if she remembers him from high school.  It’s not asking too much to believe that Diana, as wealthy local celebrity, would be invited to the opening of a new hospital.  It’s stretching things, though, to then have her deliver a baby while the hospital is in flames around her.

Coming out at the tail end of the disaster boom, City on Fire didn’t do much at the box office and would probably be forgotten if not for the MST 3K connection.  A year after City on Fire was released, Airplane! came out and, through the power of ridicule, put a temporary end to the entire disaster genre.

Monster Chiller Horror Theatre: Deadly Companion (1980, directed by George Bloomfield)

Deadly Companion starts with John Candy sitting in a mental institution and snorting cocaine while happily talking to his roommate, Michael Taylor (Michael Sarrazin).  Michael has been in the institution ever since the night that he walked in on his estranged wife being murdered.  Because of the shock, he can’t remember anything that he saw that night.  When his girlfriend Paula (Susan Clark) comes to pick Michael up, Michael leaves the institution determined to get to the truth about his wife’s murder.  Once Michael leaves, John Candy disappears from the movie.

Michael suspects that his wife was killed by her lover, Lawrence Miles (Anthony Perkins) but there is more to that night than Michael is remembering.  Deadly Companion is a typical low-budget shot-in-Toronto thriller from the early 80s, with familiar Canadian character actors like Michael Ironside, Al Waxman, Kenneth Welsh, and Maury Chaykin all playing small roles.  Michael Sarrazin is a dull lead but Anthony Perkins gets to do what he did best at the end of his career and plays a thoroughly sarcastic bastard who gets the only good lines in the film.

What’s interesting about Deadly Companion isn’t the predictable plot and it’s certainly not Michael Sarrazin.  Instead, what’s strange is that several cast members of SCTV show up in tiny supporting roles, though none of them get as much of a chance to make as big an impression as John Candy.  Deadly Companion is a serious thriller that just happens to feature Candy, Joe Flaherty, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas.  It’s strange to see Michael Sarrazin trying to figure out who killed his wife while Eugene Levy loiters in the background.  It leaves you waiting for a punchline that never comes.

The SCTV people are in the film because it was directed by George Bloomfield, who also directed several episodes of SCTV.  Since this film was made before SCTV really broke into the American marketplace, it was probably assumed that no one outside of Canada would ever find the presence of John Candy in a dramatic murder mystery distracting.  Of course, when Deadly Companion was later released on VHS in the late 80s, Candy and the SCTV crew were all given top billing.

A Movie A Day #63: Showdown (1973, directed by George Seaton)


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

The time and the place is the old west.  Growing up, Chuck Jarvis (Rock Hudson) and Billy Massey (Dean Martin) were best friends.  When the lovely Kate (Susan Clark) chose Chuck over Billy, the two of them go their separate ways.  Billy becomes a notorious train robber.  Chuck becomes the sheriff of their hometown.  After Billy returns home, it is up to Chuck to not only capture him but to also protect him from not only his former partners but a gang of vigilantes as well.

There’s nothing surprising about Showdown, a strictly by the numbers western that, if not for a few bloody gunshot wounds and some dialogue about cattle “humping,” could have just as easily been released in 1953 as 1973.  The only thing that makes Showdown special is that it was the last western made by both Rock Hudson and Dean Martin.  Dino is his usual fun-loving, half-soused self but Rock Hudson looks absolutely miserable here.  If Rock’s role had been played by Frank Sinatra (or even Peter Lawford), Showdown would probably be remembered as a minor classic.  As it is, it’s for Dean Martin completists only.


Lisa Marie Does Murder By Decree (Dir. by Bob Clark)

A week ago, I had a very odd dream, one that was more disturbing than frightening.  I saw myself walking down a fog-covered street in London.  Simply by the way I was dressed and the distant sounds of horses crossing cobblestone streets, I knew that this was towards the end of the 19th century.  I walked down the street, aware that there were people near me who I could hear but couldn’t see because of the thick fog.  Finally, I reached a shabby-looking boarding house.  As I watched myself starting to open the front door, I realized that, in my dream, I was Mary Kelley, the final victim of Jack the Ripper.  And, by stepping into that boarding house, I was heading towards my own death.  That’s when I woke up.

Over on my twitter profile, I describe myself as being a “sweet little thing with morbid thoughts.”  I guess my fascination with the mystery of Jack the Ripper is an example of those morbid thoughts.  Out of all of the Ripper’s victims, Mary Kelley has always been the one that I’ve felt “closest” to.  She was murdered on November 9th, 1888.  I was born on November 9th, 1985.  Like me, she was a fallen Irish Catholic.  Like me, she had red hair.  While the other Ripper victims were all in their 40s, Kelley was only 25 years old and, for the longest time, I believed I was destined to die between my 25th and 26th birthdays.  (I’m 25 years old so hopefully, that was just my imagination working overtime.)  I think what truly made Kelly’s murder stand out in my mind is that she was killed in her own room, probably attacked while she was either asleep or passed out.  Being attacked while asleep has always been one of my phobias, one of the reasons why I’m often happier with insomnia than sleep.

Still, until my dream, I had given much thought to Jack the Ripper or any of his victims for quite some time.  After the dream, I ordered a copy of The Jack The Ripper Encyclopedia from Amazon and then I rewatched my personal favorite of all the Jack the Ripper films, Bob Clark’s Murder By Decree.

Released in 1979, Murder by Decree mixes the facts of the Ripper case and the fictional characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with the same Royal Conspiracy theory that lies at the heart of the better known film From Hell.  Unlike From Hell, Murder By Decree is an almost bloodless film.  Instead of emphasizing the savagery of the Ripper murders, Clark chose to focus on creating an oppresively grim and paranoid atmosphere.  Whether it’s the ominous image of the Ripper’s carriage slowly moving through the London fog or Holmes’ visit to a nightmarish insane asylum, Clark’s London is a grim and forbidding dreamscape that almost seems to have sprung from some lost example of German expressionism.

Into this dark and oppressive atmosphere, Murder By Decree drops the familiar and comforting characters of Holmes and Watson (played, respectively, by Christopher Plummer and James Mason).   I have to admit that I’ve never actually been able to bring myself to read any of the Holmes stories (though I’ve tried) but the characters are both so iconic that I feel as if I had.  Both Holmes and Jack the Ripper are characters that everyone feels they knew about even if they’re not sure when they first heard of them.   Though this might sound rather gimmicky to have these two characters meet, a good deal of the film’s strength comes  from the contrast between the nostalgic innocence of Holmes and Watson and the harsh reality of Jack the Ripper’s London.  By the end of the film, when Holmes’ voice cracks as he describes the conspiracy behind the Ripper movies, he’s gone from being an icon to being a stand-in for everyone who has ever been disillusioned by what they previously believed in.

Plummer makes for a surprisingly physical Holmes but he does a good job with the role, bringing a surprising vulnerability to the detective.  James Mason, meanwhile, makes for a perfect sidekick and he and Plummer both have the type of chemistry that Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law could only dream about.  The rest of the cast is made up of familiar English and Canadian character actors and they all give memorable performances.  Donald Sutherland is excellent as a haunted psychic but my favorite supporting performance probably comes from David Hemmings who plays a shadowy police inspector.  This is because every time I see Hemmings on-screen, I’m reminded of Dario Argento’s Deep Red 

If I do have any issues with this film, it’s that it promotes the long discredited Royal/Masonic Conspiracy as a solution.  (This theory will be familiar to anyone who has seen or read From Hell.)  However, of all the various solutions that have been offered up in an attempt to explain and understand Jack the Ripper, the whole political conspiracy angle is undoubtedly the most cinematic and Clark makes good use of it here.  This is a film in which a growing sense of paranoia and unease seems to pervasively fill every scene just as surely as the London fog.  The viewer, in the end, is thankful to actually have the familiar characters of Holmes and Watson to identify with because otherwise, the worldview of Murder By Decree is almost unbearably dark.

By the way, the role of Mary Kelley in this film is played by a fellow redhead, the Canadian actress Susan Clark who tended to show up in a lot of low-budget, Canadian movies in the 70s.  Though she doesn’t have many scenes, she is sympathetic presence and Plummer’s reaction to his inability to save her from Jack the Ripper is a scene that has haunted me since the first time I watched this movie and every time since.