Sunday, August 24, 2008

Not So Obscure Trailer, but Still MIA on DVD: Rolling Thunder (1977, John Flynn)

"There's a storming brewing in this man." The distinctive voice on the trailer belongs to the late Percy Rodrigues, a Canadian actor best known for his work on numerous trailers, including Jaws, and as the voice of the Locnar in Heavy Metal. Tommy Lee Jones has gone on to do much more acclaimed work in front of, and behind, the camera, but it doesn't get much better than his final line in the trailer--"Let's go clean 'em up." MGM, where's the DVD already?

video

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The 12 Movies Meme: Better Late Than Never


Steve from  The Last Picture Show tagged me to fill out my imaginary 12 film retrospective at the venerated New Beverly Cinema.  The object is to submit your choices and tag five more bloggers.  I found out about Steve's tag a little late so this is coming a few weeks after most everyone else's lists.  The 12 Movies Meme originated at Lazy Eye Theatre:

Pre-Code: The Story of Temple Drake (1933, Stephen Roberts) & Convention City (1933, Archie Mayo)
This is truly a fantasy since Jack Warner junked all materials including, crucially, the original negative for Convention City amidst pressure from Joseph Breen and the Legion of Decency. Temple Drake still exists, but it is very difficult to track down.  The latter was one of the most attacked films of the pre-Code era and it still manages to shock even if it is a diluted version of the original William Faulkner story upon which it is based.

Gangs of '79: The Warriors (1979, Walter Hill) & The Wanderers (1979, Philip Kaufman)
Two of my favorite films of any genre or period, unquestionably different, but forever tied together by their being part of the "gang cycle" of 1979.  It's been said that "Alien is to the Stones as Star Wars is to the Beatles."  How would that analogy work for these two (in)famous gang pictures?  Related to these two films is an amusing anecdote from Larry Gross's meeting with Lindsay Anderson on the set of Walter Hill's 48 Hrs.

'68: The Swimmer (1968, Frank Perry) & Petulia (1968, Richard Lester)
Technically, The Swimmer was produced in '65-'66, but was shelved, re-shot, and re-edited by its studio Columbia, producer Sam Spiegel, and Sidney Pollack amongst several others. However, its portrait of a corroding suburbia fits with the tumult of '68.  To say nothing of Ned Merrill and the Lucinda River.  After repeated viewings, Petulia, shot in San Francisco in the wake of the Summer of Love continues to move me in ways I find difficult to put into words.

Lee Marvin: Point Blank (1967, John Boorman) & Prime Cut (1972, Michael Ritchie)
Two of the most enduring and entertaining films from Marvin's post-Cat Ballou and Dirty Dozen heyday.

Noir: The Breaking Point (1950, Michael Curtiz) & On Dangerous Ground (1952, Nicholas Ray)
Two of my favorite examples of films noir because of my great affinity for stars John Garfield and Robert Ryan and because of the melodramatic elements--Garfield and his relationship with his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and daughters; Ryan's life affirming bond with Ida Lupino--that raise these pictures to greatness.

Western: The Naked Spur (1953, Anthony Mann) & Ride Lonesome (1959, Budd Boetticher)
The current placeholders for the top spots on my Mann and Boetticher lists, filmmakers responsible for two of the most sublime director/star partnerships in the annals of cinema, let alone the Western.

Some runners-up: The Thing (82)/Dawn of the Dead, Pretty Poison/Blue Velvet, The Phenix City Story/Rolling ThunderGun Crazy/Something Wild (86), The Leopard/The Age of Innocence

I'm tagging:




Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971, Floyd Mutrux)

"Wind it up baby, the Solid Gold Weekend is coming to a close..."
U.S. One-Sheet

Mitch and Beverly aka Dusty and Sweets

Larry and Pam

Big Time Male Hustler and a customer

Floyd Mutrux's pseudo documentary Dusty and Sweets McGee is one of the great lost curios of the American New Wave.  It is, to use a term too freely thrown around, truly a time capsule of a time and place, which has long since morphed into something else entirely. Made on a shoestring by the then 28 year-old Mutrux, fresh from the Warner Bros. story department, the film was pulled by that very same studio after a week of very solid business.  It is said that studio executives were scared off by the nonjudgmental style in which Mutrux and his team (including William A. Fraker, Laszlo Kovacs, and Bobby Byrne) portrayed the film's eclectic mix of real-life Los Angeles junkies.  Uncharitable reviews like the one by the Times' Howard Thompson, which characterized the film as "sickening" and "interminable," surely did not aid the film's cause.  

However, the film is much better than that. Using the ubiquitous voice of an all-night radio d.j. as something of a framing device, Mutrux follows a collection of dealers and dopers during one "Solid Gold Weekend."  Some like Tip and the Big Time Male Hustler spout their philosophies to the camera in an interview style.  Others like Mitch and Beverly ("Dusty and Sweets") the camera observes in a more fly-on-the-wall manner. An on-screen text scroll at the start of the film tells us that the addicts in the film are really addicts.  The dealers (Father Knows Best child star Billy Gray among them) are actors.  Most of the attention is wisely placed on the addicts who range from a tragically young teenage couple, Larry and Pam, to a low-level criminal and "card-carrying everyday dope fiend," Tip.  Interestingly, it is Gray, the one real actor in the piece, who comes off weakest.  His screeds seem forced and inauthentic in comparison to the otherwise unprofessional cast.  Still, it is a trip, to say the least, to see the former child star with long greasy hair and a swastika tattoo.

Mutrux injects no overt commentary into the film--there is no voiceover and no onscreen titles except for the aforementioned opening.  Instead, he expertly uses familiar golden oldies of the 50s and 60s and some lesser remembered tunes from the early 70s as a sort of Greek chorus and, in the case of the finale which utilizes Jake Holmes' "So Close," achieves a staggering effect.  Mutrux, like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, is clearly aware of the great dramatic effect that the right pop song can have on a film.  The soundtrack, which includes footage of Blues Image performing their sole hit "Ride, Captain, Ride," plus Del Shannon's "Runaway," the Monotones' "Book of Love," the Marcels' "Blue Moon," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," Harry Nilsson's "Don't Leave Me Baby," and others is surely contributing to its continued absence on any home video format.  The licensing fees are no doubt enormous especially for such a niche title.  The keen ear for pop music that Mutrux demonstrates here is not surprising considering this skill would be integral to his later output, aloha, bobby and rose, The Hollywood Knights, American Hot Wax (perhaps his most fully realized film), and There Goes My Baby

Warner did strike a new print for a weeklong run at San Francisco's Roxie in 1996 and both dailies, the Chronicle and Examiner, gave it good notices.  I would very much like to see a DVD so that the fine camerawork by Fraker and "extra eyes" Kovacs, Byrne, and Richard Colean could be better appreciated and so that we could have much-needed input from the rarely heard from Mutrux about his concept, its production, and its participants.  Though I don't have great faith that many of the "stars" are still living, I would like to definitively know what became of them, particularly Larry and Pam, whose scenes are the most harrowing and painful to watch.  Most famously, in 1998, Billy Gray settled a libel suit with Leonard Maltin, over the film's entry in Maltin's annual film and video guide.  Maltin incorrectly labeled Gray an addict in the guide and was forced to remove the damaging text in subsequent printings and issue a public apology, which he did on July 18th of that year.  

Mutrux is an interesting case.  Like Paul Williams, he peaked rather early and though he's still kicking (there was a late 90s article floating around the Internet about all of his near-misses), many of his projects have never gotten past the development stage.  Mutrux's 1975 follow-up film aloha, bobby and rose starring Paul LeMat and Diane Hull is available from Anchor Bay.  His 1978 classic American Hot Wax, which chronicled the times of pioneering d.j. Alan Freed, appeared very briefly on home video at the dawn of the format, but has since been in the vaults due to its mammoth double LP length soundtrack.  A collection of pop hits did not, however, stop Sony from belatedly releasing the inferior The Hollywood Knights (a more raunchy American Grafitti) on DVD and VHS in the late 90s with its soundtrack intact (this was around the time that the studio also paid the soundtrack royalties for Heavy Metal and American Pop and released them on home video).  1994's There Goes My Baby was a casualty of Orion's collapse and sat on the shelf for a few years. 

He appeared as an actor in Rosemary's Baby, Noel Black's Cover Me Babe, and 60s episodic television.  His writing and story credits include Two-Lane Blacktop (uncredited), The Christian Licorice Store (also producer), Freebie and the Bean (executive producer), American Me (executive producer), Bound By Honor, and Mulholland Falls (which you can read about in a lengthy article at Radiator Heaven).  He was an executive producer of Dick Tracy. His former wife is the producer Gail Mutrux.

The key art for Dusty and Sweets McGee is not all that visually interesting, however I do appreciate the text, which attempts to link all or most of the characters in a way that the film never actually does. In any event, it does a good of selling the film.  The tag line refers to the aforementioned radio announcer's jargon.  When taken out of its original context and used as poster copy, it is melancholic and ominous in a way that is befitting for the film. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Revolutionary (1970, Paul Williams)

U.S. One-Sheet

Italian Insert

Voight concedes that he will never look as badass as Cassel.

"Get your hands off me, Pig!"

Before he was stumping for McCain and calling the Vietnam-era anti-war movement "Marxist propaganda," Jon Voight was starring as the eponymous hero of Paul Williams' The Revolutionary. Made just after Voight's break-out film Midnight Cowboy, The Revolutionary is set in an unnamed Facist-like state (shot in a cold and anonymous London). Voight, a member of a radical student organization akin to SDS, becomes disillusioned with the group's ineffective, non-violent attempts to enact change.  He leaves his young cronies behind and becomes allied with labor leader Robert Duvall and Weatherman-type extremist Seymour Cassel, who in today's climate, would in no uncertain terms be labeled a terrorist.  The film is perhaps too rigidly composed and structured and I have mixed feelings about its ambiguous ending, which Williams designed as a way to "throw the choice back to the audience."  Even in its attempts to relocate the film out of the then-current and familiar environs, The Revolutionary is a striking document of the times in which it was made.  Towards its later stages, the film reminds of the much more recent Day Night Day Night, a film that explores the motives of a would-be young terrorist in post-9/11 New York.  

Jay Cocks called the film "a subtle, intelligent" film that "charts the course of radicalization with cool precision."  Of Voight, he said the actor's "fine performance" was his "best to date."  It was young director Williams whom Cocks singled out for the most effusive praise: "It is with filmmakers like Paul Williams that the future of the industry lies.  Williams has talent and insights far beyond his 26 years.  [The Revolutionary] marks Williams as a filmmaker not only worth watching, but also worth waiting for."  As we will see, Williams was at the forefront of the New Hollywood, but it would be others who would gain fame and direct the most important films of the era.

Williams would direct three very interesting and promising features (Out of It, The Revolutionary, Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues) in quick succession in the late 1960s and 70s before leaving Hollywood for the Arica Cult.  He would return to direct Nunzio in 1978, Miss Right in '82, and a few other films in the '90s and early '00s, but he never recaptured the momentum he'd had early on or deliver on the promise seen by critics like Cocks. 

Before leaving the industry, Williams formed a production company with Ed Pressman (Pressman-Williams), which would produce Brian DePalma's Sisters and Terrence Malick's Badlands.  Pressman continues to be a prominent producer, even having a retrospective of his work several years ago at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  While most of Williams' peers have gone onto become lionized figures, he has drifted into obscurity and been confused with the other Paul Williams.  

Not surprisingly, none of the early Williams pictures has appeared on DVD preventing a wider reconsideration of his work.  Dealing is a Warner title while Out of It (also starring Voight) and The Revolutionary are both controlled by MGM.  WB has not previously partnered with Criterion on DVD while MGM has on the rare occasion, but should that situation change, the above three titles would be ideal for an Eclipse box-set.

When I programmed The Revolutionary a few years ago (along with Electra Glide in Blue, another United Artists title of the era), I was very happily surprised to see both in pristine, new 35mm prints.  I'm told that this was thanks to the efforts of esteemed MGM/UA archivist John Kirk and that these and other scarcely seen UA titles were part of a cable package on Flix several years ago.  Clearly, the elements are ready, but MGM/Fox has not shown interest in releasing DVDs of these films--MGM did, thankfully, release Electra Glide in Blue several years ago before the Sony buyout.  [On a much sadder note, in its monthly newsletter, the Film Noir Foundation reports that John Kirk is gravely ill with a brain virus and does not have much longer to live.]

Voight must, deep down, feel some relief that The Revolutionary, a cinematic reminder of his youthful political leanings remains in the vaults.  However, for admirers of the American cinema of the late 1960s and 70s, it and the other films of the Paul Williams oeuvre are vital pieces of that puzzle and should be more readily available for viewing.

As for the poster design, it's always struck me that Voight is made to appear like a puppet on a string.  His character has a limp in the film, which, I think, accounts for the his bowlegged, wobbly appearance in the poster.  We will also, of course, get the impression of a man beaten down (the limp comes at the expense of the police) by an oppressive higher power (the police above and behind him).  All the more reason for star Voight to sneer at the film, one he must consider a youthful folly at best.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Boulevard Nights (1979, Michael Pressman) & Walk Proud (1979, Robert Collins)

"Everything happens on the boulevard--and the boulevard happens at night."

Style A

Style B

British Quad

Mexican lobby card

"He was tough enough for the streets...was he tough enough to leave them?"

U.S. One-Sheet

Movie tie-in version of the original novel by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain)

Robby Benson in full Chicano mode 

Ill-fated co-star Sarah Holcomb

After the Clairidge Theater in Montclair, NJ cut up the original theater into several smaller ones in the early 80s, they crafted a pretty cool (at least to my young eyes) wallpaper out of old one-sheets to adorn the theater walls.  For some reason, the only such one-sheet I remember now is the one for Walk Proud.  This wallpaper lasted into the mid-90s and I was sad when the inevitable redesign came.

It's not too surprising that of the five pictures in the "gang cycle" of 1979, Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud, would be least remembered.  The other three pictures were, of course, The Warriors, The Wanderers, and Over the Edge.  The latter three films are now regarded as cult classics--each has the official seal from cult movie guru Danny Peary--and are all available on DVD with special features of varying quality and extent.  Boulevard Nights and Walk Proud have yet to appear on DVD and Walk Proud has never appeared on any home video format in the U.S.  

Why the disparity?  Following violence in movie theaters showing The Warriors in February 1979, exhibitors were wary of screening other gang pictures.  Politicians and media wags, not to mention Curtis Sliwa's fledgling Guardian Angels, were up in arms about the so-called exploitative violence in these films.  Three young people (two in Southern California and one in Boston) were killed in incidents tied to screenings of The Warriors.  Boulevard Nights was met with violence and protests due to its depiction of Latino culture in San Francisco upon its March 1979 release.  Paramount responded by altering its ads for The Warriors, which were seen as irresponsible ("These are the armies of the night.  They could run New York City.") and placing full page ads with excerpts from Pauline Kael's sparkling New Yorker review.  The Warriors, on its way to becoming a big box office success, was stunted as the studio limited further expansion.  Universal pushed back and scaled down the release of Walk Proud and newly christened Orion shelved Over the Edge and The Wanderers received substantially less theatrical exposure due to the earlier violence and negative publicity associated with "gang pictures."

As for Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights, they remain most obscure due to the fact that both are conventional melodramas with minimal stylistic flourishes whereas the other three films are without question more cinematic in every sense of the word.  Walter Hill and Andrew Laszlo's day-glo New York visuals in The Warriors still dazzle; Philip Kaufman's Wanderers moves with ceaseless energy and skill between comedy, drama, and horror; Jonathan Kaplan's Over the Edge remains the best update of Rebel Without a Cause just in time for punk to hit the suburbs.  

Walk Proud and Boulevard Nights transfer familiar stories and themes to a heretofore underrepresented milieu--Chicano gang culture in Los Angeles.  That they do not entirely succeed is due, in large part, to the fact that both films were conceived and produced by white filmmakers and executives, and in the case of Walk Proud, a non-Latino actor (Robby Benson) plays the starring role of a young Chicano gang member.  Had the actor been a less familiar face than Benson, or someone with more street credibility, the results may have been more successful.  As it stands, the picture seems in a lot of ways like one in a line of Benson pictures from the time (One on One being the most prominent) in which a sensitive and delicate Robby, in this case under a layer of makeup, rises above obstacles and bullies and ends up in the arms of an adorable and wholesome young woman.  

In Walk Proud, Benson is Emiliano, a young member of the Aztecas, an East L.A. gang, who becomes torn between his gang loyalties and the growing love between he and wealthy, WASPy Sarah Lassiter (Sarah Holcomb).  Even though director Robert Collins presents the proceedings in a distinctly television style, the drama of Emiliano's struggle is well established and we get a strong sense of the politics of the gang and community and the gravity of his decision to cross over to the other side of the tracks. It helps that Benson and Holcomb acquit themselves nicely in their roles.  The other key roles are filled by Latino actors including Pepe Serna, Henry Darrow, and Trinidad Silva.  The movie is based on a novel by Evan Hunter who wrote the seminal juvenile delinquent novel, The Blackboard Jungle.

In his Times review, Vincent Canby contrasted Walk Proud and The Warriors and went as far as to say, "The movie's sentimental, realistic style has nothing whatsoever to do with the dreamlike, glossy cool affected by Walter Hill's notorious The Warriors. Yet Walk Proud may well be a far more revolutionary picture than the randomly pretty Hill film. In the way it documents the power plays of the Aztecas, the Chicano gang, as its members negotiate and then break treaties covering such things as safe passage through Santa Monica, it manages to suggest the self-generating absurdities built into all international relations conducted through power blocs."

Boulevard Nights was directed by Michael Pressman (The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Those Lips Those Eyes, Some Kind of Hero) who now directs primarily for television, executive produced by actor turned filmmaker Tony Bill (My Bodyguard), and written by Japanese American writer-director Desmond Nakano (American Me, Last Exit to Brooklyn, White Man's Burden).  Its mostly Latino cast is headed by Richard Yniguez and Danny De La Paz as the brothers Avila, Raymond and Chuco.  Elder brother Raymond wants to get out of the barrio and open an auto repair shop.  Chuco, unfortunately, cannot rise above the gang lifestyle and heads down a potentially tragic path.  Canby was quite unforgiving in his review accusing the filmmakers of being slaves to its very "conventional narrative."  "When we watch [the characters] suffer and die in foolish pursuits, the movie is merely sightseeing."  He later states that director Pressman's decision to begin a scene with a shot of the sky is a sign of a director who's "not got very much on his mind."  Roger Ebert is more positive toward the film, first criticizing the radical action group who accosted him outside the theater with a flyer urging viewers to boycott The Warriors and Boulevard Nights on the charge that the films were part of a fascist conspiracy to "poison the minds of thousands."  As for the film, Ebert calls it an admirable anti-gang drama which nearly overcomes a "story structure borrowed from umpteen other Hollywood movies about coming of age in a ghetto."

While the two forgotten gang pictures of 1979 (how did so many studio bigwigs think this was a good idea?) are by no means stellar films, it would be nice to have them readily available for viewing on reputable, high quality DVDs.  Walk Proud has appeared on the Encore networks in recent years.  Boulevard Nights can be seen for free online.  Bootleg DVDs of varying quality can be found on eBay, ioffer, and other similar sites. 

As Boulevard Nights is a Warner Home Video title, I would expect any DVD to be a more than respectable OAR affair (to do justice to the photography by esteemed d.p. John Bailey), possibly including a theatrical trailer. Since Walk Proud is a Universal title, I am considerably less confident in the quality of the DVD because of the studio's spotty record with catalog releases, especially with regards to aspect ratio and soundtrack licensing (Walk Proud prominently features Elton John's "We All Fall in Love Sometimes").  However, Universal has lately been going to this well (read: marginal catalog titles of the 70s-80s) more often than Warner.

As for the poster designs of the two featured films, neither is very eye-popping, particularly when compared to the striking designs used for the other three gang pictures.  I can still remember seeing The Warriors poster in an old Rick's Movie Graphics catalog and deciding I had to see the movie and have the poster.  The poster sits framed above my desk and my wife can attest to my attachment to the film, which remains strong almost twenty years on.

Since I do have an affinity for young, mostly forgotten, actors of the 70s-80s, I must mention Walk Proud co-star Sarah Holcomb, most memorable to audiences from her humorous turns in Animal House (her debut as Clorette DePasto) and Caddyshack (Maggie O'Hooligan). She also appeared prominently in Richard Benner's Happy Birthday, Gemini.  But, that was all she wrote for her career in film.  Apparently, Sarah has struggled with drug problems and mental illness since that time and it's said that the 2004 film Stateside starring Rachel Leigh Cook is inspired by her ordeal.  Bobby at DERAILED describes a moving encounter he had with Ms. Holcomb nearly twenty years ago.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vigilante Force (1976, George Armitage)

"They called it God's Country...until all hell broke loose!"

Style A

Style B

I've been meaning to track Vigilante Force down since I picked up the Style A one-sheet at a poster sale at the Orpheum in Madison, WI about nine years ago.  Directed by Tarantino favorite George Armitage (Miami BluesGrosse Pointe Blank), this Phenix City Story-influenced actioner has yet to appear on home video in any format.  Top-billed Kris Kristofferson (looking amusingly scraggly in a cop uniform) and Jan-Michael Vincent star as the brothers Arnold who start out on the same side and end up as foes.  It seems that Ben Arnold's (Vincent) small town is being overrun by a group of violent oil workers.  Naturally, Ben calls in his Vietnam-veteran brother Aaron (Kristofferson) to help quell the disorder. Aaron hires a group of mercenaries to put down the trouble makers, but it's not long before Aaron and his gang become corrupted by their newfound authority, setting the stage for a confrontation between the brothers, vigilante force vs. law and order.  


Met with unsurprisingly tepid reviews, the film was also, surprisingly, a flop according to Michael Weldon's Psychotronic Video Guide. Made in a golden age of revenge pics and boasting Kristofferson and Vincent when their respective stars shone the brightest, Vigilante Force would seem to be right in line with Walking Tall, White Line Fever (also with Vincent), Dirty Harry, Fighting Mad, and the other urban Westerns that proliferated on drive-in screens throughout the early part of the decade. This was one of the earliest motion pictures to prominently feature a Vietnam veteran and it must be noted that that character, Kristofferson, is the "bad brother" and his hairy, frequently shirtless appearance is starkly contrasted by his clean-cut "good" brother Vincent.  Not having seen the film, it's hard to know what political statement, if any, is being made by Kristofferson's characterization. 

The film features a rare feature film appearance by Victoria Principal before her Dallas days and Bernadette Peters in one of her earliest roles.  It should also be mentioned that the film was produced by Gene Corman, brother of Roger.  

Director Armitage is anything but prolific, but several of his films--Hit Man, Miami Blues, Grosse Pointe Blanke--have left their mark, particularly on the aforementioned Tarantino, who talks enthusiastically about the audacious--and long lost--movie marketing of his youth and Armitage in a rambling and entertaining interview on Elvis Mitchell's The Treatment.


Vigilante Force features two distinctive poster ad campaigns, which can be seen here in their one-sheet incarnations.  Like many films of the era, particularly exploitation and genre pieces, Vigilante Force's key art is bold and colorful, and based on a drawing or painting rather than photography.  Although the Style A poster foreshadows the "big head syndrome" that would plague film posters and video artwork from the mid-1980s onward, it also includes a spectacular collage, in this case emphasizing the action set pieces of the film. The collage style was very prevalent in the 1970s.  Three of my favorites in this vein are Electra Glide in BlueCleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold, and Duck, You Sucker.  Style B isn't quite as flashy--perhaps this is why it's not the first string poster--but it effectively gets to the heart of the piece...brother against brother, with a woman in the middle, of course.  

After looking at these posters or books such as Trash: The Graphic Genius of Xploitation Posters and Film Posters of the 60s, it's hard not to become at least a little depressed when looking at the latest batch of bland, colorless film posters and DVD covers. While it's true that the film's the thing, some semblance of film artwork surely couldn't hurt.