Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Killer Elite (1975, Sam Peckinpah)


Like Clint Eastwood's The Eiger Sanction, Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite is considered a minor work of a legendary director.  Both were released in 1975 to little acclaim and remain buried near the bottom of each filmmaker's oeuvre.  That said, I recently watched the Peckinpah film for the first time via Twilight Time's new Blu-ray and found myself enjoying it for the same reasons I so enjoyed The Eiger Sanction when I watched it for the first time a few years back.  Both are espionage thrillers whose pleasures have little to do with the intricacies of their main plots and everything to do with their defiantly politically incorrect attitudes, offbeat characters, said characters' interpersonal relationships, and the subsidiary story lines contained within their lengthy running times.

Given the complicated package that was Peckinpah's personal and political beliefs, it comes as little surprise that within the first ten minutes, The Killer Elite offers examples of his much-discussed skepticism of the government and his troubled and troubling relationship with women.  Onscreen text introduces us to COMTEG, the shadowy organization that agents Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) work for. COMTEG may or may not be based on reality, counts the C.I.A. as a client, and deals in the protection and / or elimination of individuals who are of special interest to foreign governments as well as our own. Locken and Hansen are partners in work and have a very close relationship outside of it, marked by both hetero competitiveness and homoerotic tension.  This is very effectively encapsulated at the start: after a successful job, Locken and Hansen enjoy a small party in their bachelor pad, which includes casually topless women, Caan impressing one of the women with his push-up prowess, and, of course, Caan bedding down said woman.


In the morning, on their way to the next part of their work assignment, Duvall taunts Caan about finding a gynecologist's note in the "chick's" pocketbook, indicating a "vaginal infection."  By way of Duvall's cackling--which turns out to be more mean-spirited than first indicated--Peckinpah appears to be poking fun at Caan's well-known reputation as an overly confident swinging dick with permanent residence at the Playboy Mansion.  After a rather surprising twist, Caan becomes a crippled dick: at close range gunshots turn his left leg into a "wet noodle" and his left arm only slightly less gimpy. It's here, in the film's best section,  that Caan loses his standing as "numero uno" in the organization, becomes the property of his nurse (Van Heflin's daughter Kate), and, in documentary-like fashion, is shown rehabbing his way back to top dog status.  Whether intentional or not, it is this digression into the seemingly quotidian, mostly removed from the film's requisite C.I.A. mumbo jumbo, where the film is at its most satisfying.  It's much the same way that Eastwood's Eiger Sanction is at its best when Clint is learning how to scale mountains with George Kennedy rather than engaging with C.I.A. spooks in the interest of spy thriller conventions.


Once this happens, the film goes into men-on-a-mission mode and becomes less interesting, despite the considerably enjoyable dual presence of Bo Hopkins as Locken's permanently Vietnam War-damaged gunman and Burt Young as his surprisingly philosophical and soft-spoken wheelman.  It is interesting that at this point in the film, as Caan gets his mojo back and loses his vulnerability, he becomes more of an asshole, type-A guy again.  Of course, because he's Caan and this is the persona that made him a star, I like him anyway. You'd be hard-pressed to find a Caan equivalent in today's Hollywood, certainly no one as hirsute and probably no one willing to be as willfully unlikable and non-cerebral--i.e. an unrepentant meathead--as Caan, as when he cooly tells dissident Mako's twenty-ish daughter (Master Gini Lau) that he "really doesn't give a shit" after she admits to being a virgin in a failed attempt at intimacy.

Caan enjoying the sun on what I believe are the grounds of the Playboy Mansion.

Given less inspired roles as the COMTEG bosses are Arthur Hill, who was previously seen to great effect in another San Francisco film of the era, Petulia, and Gig Young, rightfully seeming disinterested and, more sadly, quite visibly and audibly slowed by his debilitating alcoholism.  In addition to the aforementioned appearance of Van Heflin's daughter in one of the key female roles, Sondra Blake, ex-wife of Robert, appears as Young's disturbingly shell-shocked girlfriend--shell-shocked by what or whom, exactly, I want to know.

Peckinpah and d.p. Philip Lathrop offer numerous scenic looks at '70s San Francisco and like '70s New York films, The Killer Elite gives viewers a valuable look at an American metropolis in a now-yearned for pre-gentrified, pre-chain store form.  Perhaps my favorite sequence in the the film has Caan participating in an outdoor martial arts class in Chinatown overseen by an elderly instructor and including men and women of various ages, colors, and body types. It's one of those casually egalitarian and unpretentious scenes that appears seemingly un-staged and which belongs firmly to that moment in time.


In keeping with that '70s thing, that I never tire of talking about, this is another of those archetypal '70s PG films, so it contains: a little casual nudity (just because), some off-the-cuff drug references, an attempt at some serious political commentary, and some docu-real violence and blood (if you don't cringe a little during the ER scene at the beginning of the film, you've got ice water in your veins). And, since it was the '70s, it was violence, not the nudity, that had to be cut in order to achieve a PG rating.

A piece on The Killer Elite cannot pass without a mention of the fact that it was the last collaboration between Peckinpah and Jerry Fielding (The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs) who died way too young at 57 and who remains unheralded outside of film score aficionado circles. Happily, since this is a Twilight Time release, his varied score, which is at different times muscular, soaring, haunting, and dissonant, appears in isolated form on one of the audio tracks.  Also, equally noteworthy is the fact that the great Monte Hellman, in between directing gigs, edited The Killer Elite, in what was, I'm pretty sure, his only collaboration with Peckinpah.  The disc contains a transfer that looks to be pretty recent and that has not, thankfully, been digitally scrubbed, as well as a number of lovingly-curated bonus features, most notable of which is Peckinpah's rarely seen 1966 telefilm Noon Wine (which I've not had a chance to view yet).

The Killer Elite contains one of the more unorthodox director title cards that I've ever seen.  The "Directed by" text appears over some blown-up-from-16mm nature footage of a bird feeding its young--a reference to the "Peck" in the director's name?  This is followed by several more shots of the main characters carrying out their mission and then a return to the unrelated bird footage, this time with the "Sam Peckinpah" title card.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Troika: The Towers, The Forty-Deuce, & KONG


This is a pre-show reel I put together for my friends who curate the monthly "DEUCE Film Series" at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn.  As they were showing a rare 35mm print of John Guillermin's King Kong (1976) on 9/11, they asked for a reel that paid tribute to the Twin Towers.  Since the series is devoted to the vibrant street and movie culture of 42nd Street, particularly in its '70s - '80s heyday, I felt compelled to include some Deuce moments, alongside the Towers. As you will see the intent was not to be comprehensive in terms of Towers footage.  The emphasis is on the '70s and '80s and genre films so as to connect back to the "DEUCE Film Series" and its primary focus. Throughout the video, pay close attention to the movies listed on the marquees.

Windows (1980), directed by the late, great Gordon Willis, who served as his own d.p. here.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Conrack (1974, Martin Ritt)


Since his hard turn to the right, Jon Voight has characterized his role in anti-Vietnam War protests and other progressive political movements of the '60s and '70s as youthful indiscretions, the result of "Marxist propaganda." One hopes he doesn't feel that way about Martin Ritt's fine 1974 drama Conrack, in which Voight gives what I consider his greatest performance--and in which his character is accused of being a Communist, amongst other "dirty" things, by hardliner Hume Cronyn.  This is one of a few films that I've really enjoyed recently, including Ritt's Norma Rae, which feature an outsider who briefly enters a community and shakes things up for the overall good.  It's also the rare film to explore Gullah people and culture.


In the prime of his acting career, Voight was a champion of underdogs, anti-establishment figures, the poor, and other assorted societal rejects.  Voight's role as Pat "Conrack" Conroy fits right in with this tradition.  He's an idealistic, young teacher who comes to "Yamacraw Island," a fictionalized Sea Island, off the coast of South Carolina, to teach the impoverished, largely illiterate Black schoolchildren there. Voight's unorthdox, but ultimately effective methods draw the ire of principal Madge Sinclair and Beaufort schools superintendent Cronyn; Cronyn is a good foil as the old timer who dishes out his intolerance and hatred with smiles and Southern hospitality.  Conrack leaves his mark on the children before he goes, but the filmmakers do not pretend that his good work will lead to drastically better lives for them.  We know from the start his time on the island will be short, but Ritt and his frequent co-scenarists Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who adapted Conroy's memoir The Water is Wide, avoid predicability and false sentimentality. Conrack is at its heart a progressive, anti-establishment (that adjective again) picture, the kind that was in full bloom in the early '70s; Voight was one of the leading faces of these films that gave voice to the disenfranchised and youthfully rebellious, and which advocated for change in the social and political hierarchies.


Conrack has many inspiring "teaching moments," scenes that could verge into hokum--Conrack teaches the kids to swim, Conrack takes the kids trick or treating, etc.--but it remains rooted in reality and is distinct from the uplifting Rocky and the many "feel good" movies that would follow in the latter part of the decade and into the '80s; these later films films often shed the realism and political content of films like Conrack and Norma Rae, gradually displacing the liberal outrage of the earlier pictures with some combination of patriotism, apoliticism, or conservatism.  It's difficult not to think of Voight's own personal political trajectory in this instance.  Still, I resist this irresistible impulse and think of Voight as the perpetually smiling, energetic, and often mischievous "longhair" who enthusiastically and passionately teaches his kids, trying any and all methods to reach them, eventually opening their eyes a little bit to the world outside their isolated existence.  Pauline Kael's quote about Voight (reprinted on the back cover of the Blu-ray), says it best: "...just about the lustiest, most joyful presence in current films."  As Conrack, Voight is an absolute joy to behold.


Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray--the film has surprisingly and sadly completely bypassed the DVD format--superbly reproduces John Alonzo's scope cinematography (which nicely showcases the rarely-filmed Lowcountry) and John Williams' score (which is beautifully spare, though still unmistakably "Williams-esque"). Twilight Time's reps have indicated that the film has not been one of its biggest sellers, which is not surprising given its status as a drama from 1974 about a teacher.  Yet, it's still disappointing because Conrack is an extremely satisfying, full-bodied portrait of a true iconoclast and I don't think there can ever be too many such characters or stories. Lovers of early '70s American cinema, in which oddball characters and environments flourished like they did at no other time on film, should find themselves quite at home with Conrack.


Here's a small sample of Williams' music, appropriately quiet and mysterious and then rollicking and joyous, all of which can be heard on Twilight Time's isolated score and effects track.  The guitar solos are by famed Wrecking Crew player Tommy Tedesco:

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Walking Stick (1970, Eric Till) & Summer of '42 (1971, Robert Mulligan)


When I requested Eric Till's The Walking Stick and Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 from the Warner Archive recently, it did not occur to me that aside from the fact that both are melancholy dramas from back to back years in the early '70s, they share another more specific distinction, the kind of connection which gives obsessives like me great pleasure: each film spawned an original musical theme, which would go on to significant success, outside of the film, in both instrumental and vocal versions.


Stanley Myers' "Cavatina," most famously performed by virtuoso Australian guitarist John Williams, is well known from its use as the theme from Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter in 1978; what most do not realize, and I include myself here, is that the piece was actually composed for The Walking Stick almost ten years previously.  Of course, due to The Walking Stick's obscurity and The Deer Hunter's great notoriety, the piece remains attached to the latter in just about every mention of the song.


Subsequently, lyrics were added to "Cavatina" and the song was performed, as "He Was Beautiful," by Cleo Laine and others.  Whether the lyrics were inspired by The Walking Stick, I'm not sure, but they aren't too far off from the feelings of Samantha Eggar's character in the film.  David Hemmings, a few years removed from Blowup, is top-lined, but it is Eggar who is the main protagonist and who leaves the greatest impression in terms of performance.  She plays Deborah Dainton, an employee of a renowned British auction house, who is reclusive outside of work, due to the lingering shame she feels about the childhood polio that mangled her leg and left her with a severe limp and claustrophobia (from her medical treatment in an iron lung).  Eggar is a revelation, performing a variety of difficult scenes and emotions in a beautifully subtle fashion.  Hemmings is excellent as the struggling artist who, despite his dubious intentions, brings the reserved Eggar briefly out of her shell.


Another pleasure of The Walking Stick and other films, particularly dramas, of that era, is the willingness on the part of the star, in this case Hemmings, to play unheroic, unlikeable, and heel-ish. Hemmings is all of those things at one point or another in The Walking Stick and while it probably did nothing for his box office standing, it makes for a more complex performance and a more interesting film.

Outside of the National Film Theatre, now known as BFI Southbank.

The Walking Stick made me think of The Panic in Needle Park, released the year after by Fox: both are gritty dramas that feature a woman immeshed in a toxic relationship, in which she is alternately drawn to and repelled by a man who has his charms, but who is at the end of the day...not good.


While very much an actors picture, Till and d.p. Arthur Ibbetson also ensure that it is visually rich, filling the Panavision frame with evocative shots of late '60s London, locations which surely have been thoroughly transformed in the forty-five subsequent years since filming took place.  Just as the "dirty old New York" films of the '60s-'80s now serve a documentary function so, too, do films like The Walking Stick, which are the London counterparts to those films from the other side of the pond.  I imagine that the shabby area which houses Hemmings' studio and which he refers to as "the backdoor of London," has since been gentrified and rebuilt into a luxury area. [Postscript: After I wrote this, I looked up West India Docks, which Hemmings mentions as the location of his studio, and found that the spot is now part of a major business district, Canary Wharf.]

"The backdoor of London" aka West India Docks.

Later in the film, Till stages an impressive, white-knuckle heist sequence; the tension is heightened by the shakiness and amateur-ness of the operation.  The leader of this raggedy group of thieves is played by veteran actor and playwright Emlyn Williams who makes quite a creepy impression as Hemmings' manipulative "patron." Williams is quietly menacing in the film's most devastating scene wherein he proves his dominance over Eggar and Hemmings, barely having to raise his voice in the process. 

Emlyn Williams hand on Hemmings' shoulder in this scene is filmed to suggest that the older man's "patronage" had certain strings attached.

Myers' suspense cues here are reminiscent of his later work on Sitting Target, a favorite film and soundtrack of mine.  Myers' diverse score also includes a lush orchestral love theme as well as some pleasant easy listening and pop sounds.  From this interview with Williams, I learned that he does not actually play on the Walking Stick soundtrack.  It goes without saying, that a full CD or vinyl release of Myers' lovely score would be most welcome...you can hear a really good, romantic, non-"Cavatina" cue in the scene which is embedded on the WA page for the film.

Hip Londoner Hemmings lolls about topless in his studio in Blowup and in The Walking Stick.  In much the same way that Richard Lester's Petulia is set in post-"Summer of Love" San Francisco, the London of The Walking Stick is noticeably less "swinging" than it was in the Antonioni film.

On the production side of things, The Walking Stick is notable for being the first producing credit of agent-turned producer Alan Ladd Jr.  "Laddie" would, of course, move on to become President at Fox, where he famously green-lighted Star Wars and Alien, before starting his own production company, The Ladd Company, known for a string of quality films in the early to mid-'80s such as Blade RunnerBody Heat, Once Upon a Time in America, The Right Stuff, and Mike's Murder.  Ladd's executive producer on The Walking Stick and all of the films he produced in England before returning to Hollywood and Fox was Elliott Kastner, a producer of many a favorite Obscure One-Sheet film.

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The original theatrical trailer, which appears on the WA MOD DVD, features the aforementioned love theme and "Cavatina." 

Hemmings strikes a perfect pose on the cover of his lone LP, which includes a cover of an otherwise unreleased Gene Clark tune, upping the hip quotient of this record exponentially.  The record was put out by MGM, who also released Blowup and The Walking Stick, so it's clear they had a lot invested in the Hemmings brand at this time.

The Warner Archive disc appears to be the first-ever widescreen home media release of this scope film, and perhaps the inaugural home video release of any kind.  The transfer is of the unrestored variety, in that the master is sourced from "as is" elements--scratches, grain, and other film-inherent artifacts remain, which is, of course, better than the digitally scrubbed alternative; aforementioned artifacts have more to do with elements of the original photography that appear to be rather tricky to translate to video.  While it is great to have it at all, I sure wish we'd see more Blu-ray releases in the WA.


One of the many assets of Robert Mulligan's Summer of '42 is its lush, haunting, and instantly memorable theme music from Michel Legrand.  The theme would be recorded, with lyrics, as "The Summer Knows" by Barbra Streisand (the producer's original choice to play the female lead), Frank Sinatra, Scott Walker, and others.  The music only appears in instrumental form in the film and this is the right choice.  It is a testament to the overall power and effect of Legrand's score that he won the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score even though the entire score essentially consists of a single theme, which is used throughout the film.  Legrand's music meshes perfectly with Mulligan and writer Herman Raucher's nostalgic images and narration (beautifully read by an uncredited, Bronx-accented Mulligan, even though it's Raucher's memories that the film is based on); to more jaded eyes and ears, it'll all surely be too maudlin and earnest.

Pianist Peter Nero had a hit with his recording of Legrand's "Theme from Summer of '42."
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The opening credits of Summer of '42 featuring my favorite version of Legrand's main theme (as was common practice, it was re-recorded and re-arranged for the LP version), which appears over an evocative series of snapshots, most of which will appear later in the film proper.

Based on Raucher's coming of age summering on Nantucket, Summer of '42 ushered in a wave of films that looked back at the '40s and '50s.  The film was criticized by some contemporary critics for looking back too fondly and rosily at the early '40s; I wasn't there, but for the purposes of this story, the portrayal feels appropriate, seems authentic, and since it's based on the screenwriter's teenage memoirs--which include the loss of his virginity--I'm not surprised that the film's tone is alternately wistful, idealized, painful, and hazy (accentuated by the soft focus of Robert Surtees' cinematography)...it seems that's how many people look back at that period in their life, especially as they begin to reach middle age, as Raucher was when he wrote the screenplay and novelization for Summer of '42.

O'Neill wrote her own sequel to the film, which she tried to sell to Lifetime at one time.  Raucher wrote a sequel, which was produced by WB as Class of '44; he subsequently refused to sell his rights to allow the studio to remake the property.

Gary Grimes, who briefly cornered the market in the early '70s playing young innocents in Westerns and period films such as this one, is Hermie, a fifteen-year-old boy who falls hard for a slightly older woman (Jennifer O'Neill) staying alone on the island after her husband leaves to serve in WWII. O'Neill is exceptionally beautiful, graceful and kind, and even if she is younger than the real Dorothy was, it's hard to imagine an actress better suited or more perfect in this role.  Grimes gives a fine performance and was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for his work, but after starring in the sequel, Class of '44, as well as in Westerns alongside John Wayne and Lee Marvin, Grimes walked away from the Hollywood life and his career as an actor in the late '70s and has spent the last few decades working for a non-profit far out of public view.


"We called ourselves the 'Terrible Trio.'"

Though there is lots of chatter in the film between the boys (Grimes, Jerry Houser, and Oliver Conant) about sex and trying to get laid, the film's best and most lasting moments are very quiet save for the sounds of the island--waves crashing, trees rustling, ships' horns--or Legrand's theme.  Often, Mulligan will show characters talking, but not allow us to hear the words, as when Hermie observes Dorothy (O'Neill) with her husband at the start of the film and later when she says goodbye to her husband when he ships off.  This stylistic approach is most effectively and memorably taken by Mulligan during Hermie's evening visit to Dorothy's house in the film's final act.  Many other period films mining similar thematic territory have followed, but Mulligan's film remains one of the most, if not the most, moving and sensitive screen iteration.


Richard Benjamin and Steve Kloves went to idyllic Mendocino little more than a decade later to film Racing with the Moon, another superlative entry in this subgenre and almost surely inspired by the form initiated by Mulligan's film, as well as its subsequent success.

It's great that the Warner Archive has made this DVD available again, after it had gone out of print, but at this point in the home video evolution, it's disappointing that they didn't issue the film on Blu-ray where Surtees' photography and the breathtaking scenery of Mendocino (standing in for Nantucket) could be that much more appreciated.  And, it wouldn't be Obscure One-Sheet if I didn't complain about Warner Bros. removing the original Kinney Services-era studio logo at the head of the film with a '90s Time Warner logo.

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A longer theatrical trailer than the one which appears on the DVD.

The final frame of Summer of '42, featuring the Kinney-era studio logo.