Thursday, September 3, 2015

State of Grace (1990, Phil Joanou)

In its relatively short life as a mid-major, Orion Pictures took home an impressive number of prestigious nominations and awards, including four Best Picture wins.  Today, the studio is most remembered for those successes and for its highly-publicized bankruptcy and eventual dissolution, which coincided with the back-to-back triumphs of Dances with Wolves and The Silence of the Lambs. When I think of Orion, however, it's not really for its most acclaimed titles, it's for its remarkably consistent run of intelligent and adventurous mid-budgeted pictures from the late '70s (when it was partnered with Warner Bros.) through the early '90s.

So many of my favorite films of the '70s-'80s begin with this memorable logo.

Phil Joanou's State of Grace comes at the end of this era and is, in fact, one of those highly unprofitable pictures that led to its parent company's demise.  A mob picture in a year full of high profile examples of the genre--Goodfellas, Godfather: Part III, Miller's Crossing--State of Grace was quickly in and out of theaters and out of the public consciousness.  I caught it a few years later on VHS, as a teenager, when I was making my way through the Sean Penn filmography (the film has the distinction of being Penn's final movie before his first retirement from acting) and then, again, a few years after that when a good friend of mine really sold me on its virtues. After this second introduction to the film, it became a favorite of mine due to its impressive cast and magnetic performances, very quotable dialogue, haunting Morricone score, and its pervasive gloominess and lack of sentimentality.  The latter qualities struck me as out-of-fashion then and, as Joanou notes on the fascinating commentary track on Twilight Time's new Blu-ray, time has only accentuated them.

Ed Harris as Frankie Flannery.  His performance might get lost behind those of Penn, Oldman, and Wright, but it shouldn't...this is his one of his best.
Jackie (Gary Oldman) in a rare contemplative moment at the bar, where he is most at home.

The kind of mid-budget drama that has very rarely been made by the studios post-'90s, a loss that Joanou laments on the aforementioned track, State of Grace is also an homage to the gritty 1970s cinema that so inspired Penn and Joanou.  To the film's credit, this was several years prior to the '70s revival when these sorts of tributes became de rigueur and stale.  Finally, as also discussed by Joanou and commentary moderator Nick Redman, in the 25 years since the film's initial release, New York City has become a drastically different place than when the film was shot there in 1989; like so many other films, the passage of time has made State of Grace an invaluable document of the place and time in which it was created.

Ed Harris and R.D. Call mean business.

Made just a few years before citywide clean-up and redevelopment efforts would really take shape, the film shows the city, midtown and downtown Manhattan in particular, when large swaths of it remained as they were in the "Wild West"-like 70s, some combination of unsafe, dirty, decrepit, underpopulated, and cheap...ripe conditions for a gang like the Westies to prosper. Much of the screenplay by playwright Dennis McIntyre and an uncredited David Rabe is inspired by the Irish gang's exploits in '70s and '80s Hells Kitchen; not so ironically it was federal prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani who would take down the Westie leadership of this era and later, as mayor, spearhead the gentrification and Disneyfication of their former territory.

I always thought that Sean Penn resembled Westie Jimmy Coonan in this mugshot of the gangster.

McIntyre and Rabe's major creation is Penn's Terry Noonan, a native of the Kitchen who has mysteriously returned to his old haunts after many years away, and reconnected with his best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman), Jackie's sister and Terry's childhood girlfriend Kate (Robin Wright), and their brother and boss of the gang, Frankie (Ed Harris).  Noonan's reunion with the Flannerys coincides with Frankie's efforts to align his gang with Italian mobster Borelli (the one-of-a-kind Joe Viterelli playing a character possibly based on Gambino boss Paul Castellano).  As the crazed Jackie, Oldman delivers an electrifying, scenery-chewing performance that ensures that the picture never really lacks energy; Penn has done that kind of thing before, but here he is the straight man, letting his face and body language communicate his character's inner torment.  And, the chemistry between he and his future wife Wright is palpable and she matches the heavyweights around had to be something of a revelation in 1990 when her only previous exposure had been on Santa Barbara and as Princess Buttercup.  I don't know if Harris has ever been scarier than he is here, thoroughly convincing when playing the authoritative boss of his gang and humorously child-like when in the presence of Viterelli.

"You're cold, Kate." - Terry Noonan

The supporting cast includes a young John C. Reilly (cast on Penn's recommendation, following their work together in De Palma's Casualties of War), the ice cold R.D. Call (another frequent Penn collaborator--At Close Range, Colors, and several others), John Turturro, an uncredited James Russo, Marco St. John, Thomas G. Waites, and the great Burgess Meredith in one of his final roles (he has a brief, but heartbreaking scene, the casting of which Joanou beautifully recalls on the commentary track).  The movie, like so many other well-known gangster films is a modern Greek tragedy, and on this most recent viewing, I found it as powerful and mournful--with some darkly humorous moments sprinkled in the earlier parts of the film--as I always have; I did feel this time around, though, that it could have been trimmed a bit. That minor criticism aside, I maintain that the film is one of the most underrated films of the '90s and undeservedly unsung gangster films of any era.

"Scary Terry" Noonan.

With the aforementioned Morricone, Rabe, and cast, as well as cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, editor Claire Simpson, and production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein, the young Joanou truly had a Murderer's Row of creative collaborators on this show and, unsurprisingly, it is a handsome production in all aspects.  This is to say that the new Twilight Time Blu-ray is a very worthwhile upgrade from the old DVD, with the HD presentation more faithfully representing Cronenweth's intricate lighting, von Brandenstein's carefully designed sets and, of course, the "dirty old New York" practical locations.  We also get a booklet with Julie Kirgo essay and Morricone's memorable (and also underrated) score on an isolated track. Morricone wrote more music for the film than appears in the final cut; I'm not sure if the isolated track includes all of this, so I will hang onto my long out-of-print CD.

The much-lauded playwright David Rabe, some years prior to State of Grace.  Sean Penn would later star in the film version of Rabe's Hurlyburly.  The 16mm print of State of Grace that I ran in college one St. Patrick's Day had a very prominent "special thanks" credit for Rabe at the top of the end credit role that I've never seen on any other version of the film.

Finally, to get back to where I started here, with Orion Pictures, it should be noted that State of Grace represents the final film in a long-running and very fruitful relationship that Sean Penn had with the studio, a relationship that led to The Falcon and the Snowman, At Close Range (coming soon from Twilight Time!), and Colors. Quite an exemplary grouping, I think.

Penn and Joanou on set.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Star 80 (1983, Bob Fosse)

It's a testament to the intensity and visceral impact of Bob Fosse's final film Star 80, that a few days after re-watching it, Star 80-inspired dreams (nightmares?) were waking me up at all hours of the night. The recent Warner Archive-issued DVD of the film is its first-ever widescreen release on home video, at least in Region 1 land, and it has been long overdue.  The reality-based drama is not an easy watch by any means, due to its very upsetting, sordid subject matter--it dramatizes the rapid rise of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten (played by Mariel Hemingway) and her tragic murder at the hands of her estranged husband Paul Snider (Eric Roberts).  It's almost unbearably dour and I debate with myself whether we really needed Fosse to turn his considerable gifts towards such a painful, relentlessly downbeat storyline.  All that said, large swaths of the film are eminently watchable due to the dexterity and fluidity with which former dancer and choreographer Fosse moves the narrative; it's a master-class in the "based on a true story" film, seamlessly weaving in and out from harrowing crime scene re-enactments, flashbacks to happier times, talking head-style interview segments, and some propulsive, entertaining montage sequences. Music--source cues and a period-specific, pop score by Ralph Burns--is expertly spotted throughout the picture and is an important part of Fosse's storytelling.  It's a shame that Burns' excellent music, which includes several original songs, was never released on a soundtrack LP so that it could have a life outside of the film.

After undergoing rigorous training to get in shape for her role as an Olympic athlete in Robert Towne's Personal Best, Hemingway transformed her looks again, including breast implant surgery, for the part of Dorothy Stratten in Star 80.  Where Eric Roberts was far prettier than the man he was playing, Paul Snider, Hemingway faced unfair criticism in some quarters for not being pretty enough to play Stratten.

Cliff Robertson is a very convincing Hef, though Hef himself was not so pleased with the depiction and sued the production because he did not like how he was portrayed.

Based on Teresa Carpenter's Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Village Voice, Star 80 is one of the grimmest major studio films I can recall, which is saying something considering the film was made and released at a time when serious, cynical dramas were rapidly going out of fashion.  Like Cutter's Way or Mike's Murder, Star 80 is a "'70s movie" that somehow got made in the '80s.  As mentioned, it's a downer and, on top of that, it's a damning critique of Tinseltown and the star-making machinery. With those things in mind, it's not surprising that it was made by Alan Ladd Jr.'s Ladd Company, which, along with Orion Pictures, was one of the beacons of adventurous and uncompromising films in '80s Hollywood.  That such a film was financed and released at the time is also indicative of Fosse's clout, following three Best Director nominations and one win in the previous decade.

Longtime Playboy photographer Mario Casilli (whose subjects included Dorothy Stratten) was responsible for re-creating Stratten's Playboy layouts for the film. 

Star 80 is one of a handful of movies that I remember watching on late night network television when I was an 8 or 9 year-old kid in the guest room at my grandparents' house.  Obviously this is not a children's film and I could not appreciate or comprehend it wholly at that young age.  That said, as with Class of 1984, another film I discovered in much the same way, I watched Star 80 with rapt attention, and I point to it as a formative film for me, one that I think directly led to my longterm interests in character-based drama, more generally, and true crime stories in a more specific sense.

Hef's brother Keith Hefner portrays the photographer who takes the shots that get Dorothy into the Mansion. 

Although Hemingway is top-billed, it's Roberts' Snider that takes center stage and is the film's prime focus.  It's the kind of big, Method-y performance people usually go crazy for and for which awards are handed out...except for the fact that the character he's playing is such a piece of a shit.  Roberts would have other quality leading roles following this film, but I don't know that he could ever totally get out from under the shadow of having played Paul Snider.  

Mariel Hemingway with Lisa Gordon, playing Dorothy's kid sister Louise, called "Eileen" in the film.  When she was 20, Louise Stratten married Bogdanovich and they remained a couple for 13 years.

Much like Hemingway's prior film, Personal Best, Star 80 is based on very recent events, and both films benefit from the fact that they were made so soon after said events, before their respective milieus had changed too much.  Had Star 80 been made just a couple years later, I think it would've been considerably more difficult to re-create the period-specific details that the film revels in.  At the very least, it would probably have required a significantly higher budget for the art department (which included Academy Award-winner and previous Fosse collaborator Tony Walton). Even if one is not taken too much with the narrative of Star 80, I maintain that anyone with even a fleeting interest in disco-era Hollywood will find the film's textures and pop-culture content (apart from some legally-mandated name changes) riveting.  The art direction is specific enough that I caught a barely-visible (on the standard definition DVD-R, anyway) The In-Laws poster in the background of a 1979 LA street scene.

Hemingway's role in Star 80 has parallels with her previous star vehicle, Robert Towne's Personal Best, in that in both films she plays naive characters not developed or confident enough to extricate themselves from problematic relationships. 

Fosse and his music department (the aforementioned Burns) use Rod Stewart's (and Jorge Ben's) "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy" to perfect effect (I suspect the song was an inspiration to the real-life Snider), as well as the Billy Joel catalog ("Big Shot" and "Just the Way You Are"); the latter artist is also featured prominently and similarly effectively on the Personal Best soundtrack ("Rosalinda's Eyes").

In an inspired bit of casting, Fosse brought in Carroll Baker, whose starring role in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll had made her a sex symbol in the '50s, as Dorothy's "take no bullshit" mother.  Seen here refusing to sign necessary release forms for Dorothy, she is ultimately the film's most redeeming character.

Was the real Dorothy as sweetly naive and innocent and easily manipulated as Hemingway's Dorothy? She was a far from fully formed 20 year-old when she was murdered, so it may not be so far off from reality, but it doesn't completely jibe with other accounts I've seen and heard.  In Fosse's film, she is constantly acted upon, whether by Snider, Hefner (Cliff Robertson), or "Aram Nicholas" (Roger Rees). The film would have been stronger and less one-sided if Fosse had followed Dorothy to New York and shown her growth as an actress, her developing independence, and her love affair with Nicholas (Bogdanovich); however, this would have taken away from his thesis that everyone--Snider, Hefner, Bogdanovich, Playboy, Hollywood--exploited her, benefited from her, and deserved some share of the blame for her demise.  Instead, Fosse stays on Snider to the bitter end, while Dorothy remains a cipher throughout, and the film takes on an increasingly numbing inevitability and ugliness.  To be fair, I'm not sure this material could ever really be terribly revelatory or just would've been better--and more affecting--if Fosse had any interest in making Dorothy a three-dimensional character with agency.

In his feature film debut, the late British actor Roger Rees plays Aram Nicholas, the fictional character meant to represent filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich.  Bogdanovich's They All Laughed is dubbed "Tinsel Time" for legal purposes in Star 80.

Roberts has related that Fosse told him that Snider was Fosse, if Fosse had not become a success.  So I think it's apt that my favorite section of the movie--and which I think Fosse probably had the most fun doing--encompasses the scenes that depict the constantly-scheming Snider in his element in Vancouver, before he ever met Stratten.  I'd have rather seen Fosse keep on that track, making a movie about that disco-era scoundrel, who's plenty interesting and unpredictable, without veering down the road to murder.  

Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Who is that guy?!" Fun City Edition

Here's a series of 3 opening credits sequences to imaginary television shows taking place in the Fun City universe, starring some of the many character actors--and some leading men--of the New York-set films of the late '60s - early '80s.  The music on the soundtrack is 3 different iterations of Billy Goldenberg's theme song from "Harry O," a San Diego-set p.i. show starring David Janssen.  So, this clip is both ode to the consummate, often unheralded character players, as well as to the lost art of the television opening credit sequence.

The video was originally part of the pre-show reel for the Deuce's 35mm screening of Night of the Juggler.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Summer Lovers (1982, Randal Kleiser)

Now, here's a Blu-ray I never thought I'd see.  Twilight Time, through their license agreement with MGM, have given Randal Kleiser's Summer Lovers its first-ever widescreen home media release. But, where most other companies, including MGM, likely would have issued the film in barebones fashion, Twilight Time have gone the extra mile and included a candid feature-length audio commentary by Kleiser, an isolated score / fx track, two theatrical trailers (regular and red band), a documentary on late composer Basil Poledouris, screen tests (featuring Patrick Swayze, Hart Bochner, and Valerie Quennessen!), a booklet with Julie Kirgo essay, and the mythical--to Summer Lovers fans like myself, anyway--The Making of Summer Lovers, a vintage featurette shot on location in late 1981 and seemingly unseen since the film's original release in 1982.

I've written about the film here previously, but to recap briefly: the plot centers on Michael and Cathy (Peter Gallagher and Daryl Hannah), a young American couple vacationing on Santorini, who enter into a summer-long menage a trois with Lina (Valerie Quennessen), a French archaeologist working on the island. After having viewed the film for the umpteenth time via the new Blu-ray, I maintain that the film would have benefited from portraying a sexual relationship between the two women (Daryl Hannah and Valerie Quennessen) and concluding on a more subdued, realistic note than does the shiny, happy Pointer Sisters-fueled ending we currently have.  All that said, the film remains a personal favorite of mine, an escapist treat that never ceases to raise my spirits, and which inspired me to travel to the Greek Isles on more than one occasion, including Santorini, the film's main location. Like a lot of films from its era, it has an earnestness and lack of irony that I love, but many will read today as "cheesy."

Kleiser was inspired by then-recent French art cinema to go where few, if any, mainstream American films had gone before and depict a polyamorous relationship in an honest and realistic manner, along with the casual, non-sexual nudity that was usually anathema to Hollywood. But, he had to balance this narrative goal with the obligations of a major summer release.  So, it is a light and bubbly film in most respects, with the kind of infectious, joyous pop music score and montage sequences expected from the filmmaker behind Grease.  There are, however, undercurrents of sadness and mystery, mostly coming from the character of Lina and Valerie Quennessen's nuanced and moving portrayal of her.  That this would be the luminous Quennessen's final film performance and that she would tragically die in an auto accident several years later grants the film an extra, unintended layer of melancholy.  And, in spite of the film coming out in the Reagan years, it has a refreshingly non-conformist, open-minded spirit that feels like a holdover from the previous decade.

As the years have gone by, the film has increasingly become valued as a cinematic time capsule of pre-AIDs attitudes towards sex and "open" relationships.  This notion is given extra resonance on Kleiser's commentary track when he memorializes numerous talented crew members who were felled by AIDS in the next several years after Summer Lovers' completion.  

The aforementioned Quennessen (those eyes!) is the highlight for me and numerous other viewers who have made this film a cult item over the ensuing years.  That said, the unfairly maligned Daryl Hannah brings an integral charm, sweetness, and sense of curiosity to the film, qualities seemingly underrated by most people not named Ron Howard.  The film is at its best when Hannah and Quennessen are in sync, either teasing Peter Gallagher or speaking about him with genuine affection. Gallagher was also treated pretty unkindly by critics when the film was released, but I think his sense of comic timing and willingness to poke fun at himself (not to mention going full frontal) is woefully under-appreciated.  The physical comedy of his first strip down on the beach cracks me up every time I watch it and it was interesting to hear from Kleiser that these beats were improvised by the actor on set rather than being in the script.

As a soundtrack aficionado, I can't not mention the music here, from the impossibly upbeat title track by Michael Sembello to the possibly even more upbeat "I'm So Excited" to Tina Turner's great cover of "Johnny and Mary" to Lime's classic "Your Love." Basil Poledouris' all electronic--Vangelis and Jean-Michel Jarre-inspired?--New Age score, adds immeasurably to the film's mood in its more introspective moments, none more so than when Gallagher first lays eyes on Quennessen.  As with most Twilight Time releases, all the music is here on an isolated track, although in this case it's a music and effects track, unfortunately.  I can only guess that with several changes in the film's ownership (Filmways to Orion to MGM) over the years, Poledouris' score tapes have gone missing.   

With the new HD master used as the source for Twilight Time's Blu-ray, it's safe to say Summer Lovers hasn't looked better since its original theatrical release...and the film itself has gotten better with age.  It's not an entirely successful mashup of beach party movie and Rohmer (I don't know that any movie could be), but its heart is in the right place and it remains unique in its attempts to bring a "free and open" European flavor, as well as the complications of a polyamorous relationship, to the summer popcorn movie season.

The 1981 Filmways logo (one of my favorite studio logos) that preceded Summer Lovers when first released in 1982.  Unfortunately, it has not been restored to the new Blu-ray, which instead begins with an Orion logo:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates)

Peter Yates' Breaking Away is such a longtime favorite of mine, a movie I've loved for so long and know backwards and forwards, that it's difficult to write about it with any kind of objectivity.  The story of a group of small-town pals in that awkward phase between childhood and adulthood is, on paper, unexciting, but the treatment it's given here results in a film that is universal and timeless, eminently quotable, rousing, funny, full of charm, emotionally rich, and profoundly moving.

Very much a post-Rocky film, it shares with that other classic sports film of the late '70s, a exquisitely-drawn collection of singular characters and a vitally strong sense of place, in addition to the requisite "get on your feet and cheer" sporting event finale.  They both have that slightly messy-opposite of slick-offbeat, but real quality that went out with the '70s.

Cycling and Italy-obsessed Bloomington, Indiana high school grad Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) hangs with his good friends Mike (Dennis Quaid), Cyril (Daniel Stern), and Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) without much thought for the future, except for which bike race he's going to sign up for next.  All of this is anathema to his blue collar, ex-stone cutter, car dealer dad (Paul Dooley) who has no idea how to connect with his boy.

Even though everything leads to an expertly mounted, supremely satisfying final race, it is the alternately hilarious and poignant interplay between Dave and the other characters, as well as the accurate portrayal of '70s middle America--specifically Bloomington--and subtle class commentary that constitute the film's lifeblood, the things that make it truly something special.

Breaking Away was a 5-time Oscar nominee and a winner for Steve Tesich's original screenplay, but by the time I discovered the movie for myself as a young teenager, it was nearly 15 years-old.  Like several movies I latched onto at that formative age, it was out of fashion (unless you were on the IU-Bloomington campus, I guess), in between its initial popularity and eventual revival as a modern classic.  In those pre-Internet days, it was not a movie that my peers were aware of and I never saw it appear on network television or cable.  Between thumbing through my Ebert, Maltin, and Peary movie guides and visits to the drama section in the video store, I stumbled upon Yates and Tesich's superior coming-of-age / sports movie hybrid and immediately fell under its spell and, as with other favorites of mine that no else seemed to care about, I did my damnedest to spread the gospel to friends and acquaintances.

Somewhat remarkably, until the late '90s, Fox never released the movie as a sell-through on VHS; it remained priced for rental in spite of its Oscar pedigree and cast of future stars.  I eventually bought the film on laserdisc (originally issued in 1981), which remains the worst quality laserdisc I ever viewed or owned.  These things, I think, contributed to the film's obscurity by the time I was 13 or 14 and first becoming aware of it.  Eventually, there was a sell-through VHS, featuring an updated transfer and, later, a DVD, which marked the film's first widescreen release on home video, but which included only the trailer and tv spots as extras.  All of this is to say that Twilight Time's new Blu-ray--with gorgeous new transfer, informative commentary track with star Dennis Christopher, and Patrick Williams' marvelous adapted and original score isolated on another track--is especially gratifying and looks particularly beautiful to my eyes after having experienced the film for so long in poor quality editions.

As for the film itself, it is one of the best of the '70s, something years of woeful home media iterations could never take away from it.  The much-improved technical presentation does accentuate and finally do justice to d.p. Matthew Leonetti's very attractive lensing and Patrizia von Brandenstein's equally impressive art direction.  Both aspects of the production are suitably unfussy, never calling undue attention to themselves while contributing to the film's carefully achieved level of visual realism. What never suffered was Tesich's delightful, autobiographical screenplay given life by a once-in-a-lifetime cast. Dooley and the Oscar-nominated Barbara Barrie as Mr. and Mrs. Stohler, the aforementioned Quaid, Stern, and Haley, Robyn Douglass as the co-ed who Dave woos. And, of course, the truly wonderful, ever-lovable Dennis Christopher as Dave.

When I was younger, it always made me sad that Christopher, who performed so beautifully and memorably here, never had another film role of this caliber; one of the chief pleasures of the Twilight Time Blu-ray is getting to hear Christopher share his memories of making the film and his gratitude to it for what it provided him. Ironically, Christopher would appear a couple years later in Chariots of Fire, alongside the late Brad Davis, who delivered his own knockout, star-making performance in 1978's Midnight Express (alongside elder Quaid brother Randy); similarly to Christopher and equally saddening to me, none of Davis' subsequent parts matched the stature and impact of his breakout role.

As a teenager and young twenty-something, it was the kids and their camaraderie that I was drawn to, that I wished I'd had when I was in high school, but when I watch it as an adult, with the experience of the premature loss of my father in mind, it is the film's portrayal of parent-child relationships, or lack thereof, as well as its deft portrayal of class differences that are most striking to me.  The push-pull dynamic between Dave and his father; the quiet, but steady love of the ever-wise Mrs. Stohler; the continual absence of parental figures for the other boys, particularly Cyril; the insecurity that leads Dave to pretend he's Italian in order to impress a college girl.

Twilight Time's disc is a beauty, a long time coming, and one that I will treasure for the long haul.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lolly-Madonna XXX (1972, Richard C. Sarafian)

Until the Warner Archive released Richard C. Sarafian's Lolly-Madonna XXX in late 2014, the film was m.i.a. on home video for over 40 years.  It's this sort of cinematic "rescue" that lovers of obscure films like this one cherish the Warner Archive for.  We're still waiting for the likes of Last Summer and China 9, Liberty 37, but every WA announcement seems to yield another buried treasure from the combined libraries of WB, MGM, RKO, Lorimar, Allied Artists, Monogram, and others.

I'm not sure what kept Lolly-Madonna XXX--aka The Lolly-Madonna War aka Fire in the Meadow (the title that the trailer on this DVD bears)--off home video for so long, but it's a pleasure to finally have this slice of prime hixploitation, with its stacked cast, in its proper scope aspect ratio on DVD.

The film like so many from the era, Westerns in particular, is a Vietnam allegory; it has its roots in an early Sue Grafton novel.  The Gutshalls and Feathers, two backwoods Tennessee clans are in a continual land dispute, which becomes increasingly violent and tragic as the film progresses.  Rod Steiger is the Feather patriarch and Robert Ryan his counterpart.  Lolly-Madonna is a fabrication of Ludie Gutshall (the underrated Kiel Martin, who died too young) meant to drive the Feather boys (Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter, Timothy Scott, and Randy Quaid) away from their illegal still long enough for Ludie and his brothers (Paul Koslo and Gary Busey) to burn it down.  Through a case of bad timing, innocent Roonie Gill (Season Hubley) is mistaken by the Feathers for the fictitious Lolly-Madonna and it's she, caught in the middle, who narrates the sordid tale.  

The story is rather simple and often unpleasant, as it heads inexorably, with little suspense or surprise, to tragedy, but it's of interest because of its long-standing scarcity, grade-A cast, and trashy, country milieu.  Lovers of weirdo '70s cinema and that decade's fascination with rural characters and culture, as I clearly am, will find much to enjoy here.  

Unsurprisingly, in the loaded cast, it's the young, pre-stardom Bridges who has the film's best moments, particularly those opposite the incredibly young-looking Hubley (a million years from her jaded turns in cult favorites Hardcore and Vice Squad).  In the quiet before the final storm, Bridges and Hubley are quite moving together, united by the hardship and tragedy each has endured prior to their meeting.  

Before his untimely death due to cancer, Ryan, star of so many fine Westerns and noirs, seemed to load up on appearances in the bizarre, off-kilter, anti-establishment pictures that were de rigueur in the early '70s: Lolly-Madonna, The Outfit, And Hope to Die, Executive Action.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, who dropped out at this time from the industry, often out of a profound distaste for the new, much more explicit Hollywood cinema, Ryan clearly had no problem rubbing shoulders with the young up and comers behind and in front of the camera and appearing in stories containing "filth" that wouldn't have been permitted on the screen a few years earlier.  This is one of the aspects that makes this era such a treat for students of classic Hollywood; it was a time when boomer stars were emerging and the previous generation was still young enough to keep up with them and pass the proverbial torch, as Ryan and Steiger do here.  Unlike Steiger, who became known for his onscreen histrionics--on full display here--Ryan counters with a welcome gravitas and stillness that helps the movie achieve whatever dramatic power and sense of loss that it does.

Sarafian, coming off of the post-Woodstock, post-Easy Rider road movie sensation Vanishing Point, would have had more clout in his career at this point than at any other time, and he chose to helm the radically different Lolly-Madonna.  Where Vanishing Point is one long-distance car chase that keeps moving from one locale to another, Lolly-Madonna remains tied to the contested land of the Gutshalls and Feathers.  In addition to his cast (put together by casting legend Lynn Stalmaster), Sarafian is aided by Philip Lathrop as d.p., the haunting theme music by Fred Myrow (Phantasm), and editor Tom Rolf, whose impressive and lengthy resume includes Taxi Driver, Heat, The Right Stuff, and numerous additional good to great films.  

Sarafian on set with Steiger.

When I finally saw this movie a couple years ago via a faded, but serviceable 35mm print, I joked that the cast had just about every young actor in early '70s Hollywood, short of Jan-Michael Vincent, capable of playing rural characters and leads.  In truth, many members of the cast, vacillated between "hixploitation" (or, "hicksploitation") and urban action films at this time.  Aside from Bridges, Busey, and Quaid, though, most of them did not graduate to prominence or enjoy as much longevity in major films. Busey and the late Lauter would appear in several other Bridges pictures before their careers blossomed and went off in their own directions.  

Joan Goodfellow and onscreen lover Jan-Michael Vincent in Buster and Billie, which some exhibitor must have paired with Lolly-Madonna at some point in the early '70s.

Joan Goodfellow (Sister E. Gutshall) would soon star opposite Vincent in Buster and Billie, another '70s rural tragedy and cult item that has become difficult to see over the years; her career, unfortunately, soon fizzled out.  

Steiger and Busey, off-camera during filming.

Koslo was a '70s mainstay who seemed to make a career out of getting his head busted in entertaining ways by older stars such as Charles Bronson.  Koslo and Timothy Scott earlier appeared together in another, even rarer post-Vietnam downer, Welcome Home, Soldier Boys; Scott was also in Vanishing Point, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Party, and he remained active, often in "rural" parts, until his early death in 1995. 

Timothy Scott as Skylar Feather.

Scott Wilson is entertained as brother Ed Lauter engages in some healthy sexual role-playing.

Scott Wilson, co-star of In Cold Blood, remains one of the best, most underrated character actors to emerge in the '60s and '70s.  

The Gutshall men (from left): Ryan, Koslo, and Martin.

The handsome, charismatic Martin co-starred in the cult blaxploitation Iceberg Slim adaptation Trick Baby, gained some fame in the '80s on Hill Street Blues, and died of lung cancer at only 46.  

Hubley, so affectively fresh-faced and innocent here, and though quite talented, had few starring opportunities in film, save for the aforementioned Hardcore and Vice Squad, her career momentum apparently stopped in the early '80s following a difficult divorce and child custody battle with Kurt Russell.

An Australian ad, I believe.

The Warner Archive DVD features the film in its o.a.r., as we've come to expect, anamorphically enhanced, and derived from an unexceptional source.  Happily, we also get a theatrical trailer, which, interestingly, plays under the evocative title Fire in the Meadow, a title completely different from the usual Lolly-Madonna XXX and The Lolly-Madonna War.  Order it here.

Films like this one, even if they are ultimately significantly flawed, are my most favorite type to come out of the Warner Archive because they truly embody the term "from the vault."  We can only hope that the other studios develop and / or speed up the releases in their own MOD initiatives so that even more of these rarities can emerge from cold storage.

"Lolly-Madonna," in a moment of rare, short-lived quietude.