Monday, August 31, 2009

M.I.A. on DVD: Sitting Target (1972, Douglas Hickox)

After watching Douglas Hickox' Sitting Target, it's easy to see why Quentin Tarantino named a character after the late director in his Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino also talks about the film with Edgar Wright on their rollicking Hot Fuzz commentary. The hard-charging Sitting Target is one of the great British crime films and stands tall against other moody, early '70s genre cinema, whatever nationality. Screenwriter Alexander Jacobs, he of the great Point Blank, as well as French Connection II, The Seven-Ups, and Hell in the Pacific, adapted Laurence Henderson's novel of the same name. From the very first strains of Stanley Myers' propulsive, ominous score set to images of a determined Oliver Reed doing an intense exercise routine in his jail cell, I knew I was in for a treat.
Reed plays career criminal Harry Lomart who finds out soon into his latest incarceration that his beloved wife Pat (Jill St. John, trying on a not entirely successful British accent) isn't going to wait for him when his 15-year jail spell ends. Adding insult to injury she tells him that she has met someone else and wants a divorce. When he hears this, in a show of raw power and rage, Harry somehow gets his hand through the partition separating them and attempts to strangle his wife to death. Prison guards separate Harry from his wife before he can finish the deed, but the stage is set for a daring escape so that Harry can exact his revenge. However, to its credit, the film doesn't play out exactly as one would expect and it has quite a few surprises up its sleeve right up until the final reel.

This is a nasty ride with nary a sympathetic character in sight. Hickox keeps the film moving at a good, energetic pace throughout the film's 93 minutes, fitting in an exciting, tension-filled prison escape, a chase involving motorcycle cops and hanging laundry that defies description, and an emotional finale with a twist that leaves things on an appropriately somber note. Reed's legendary strength and brutish qualities are put to good use here and he turns in a great performance as the emotionally broken Harry. He's joined by a young Ian McShane as his partner in crime, Edward Woodward as the cop hunting them down, Frank Finlay as a duplicitous former associate, and Freddie Jones as a fellow prison escapee.

This is an MGM title and, since it is pre-1986, belongs to Warner Bros. Expect a Warner Archive disc at some point.

Son of...

Una 44 Magnum

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Achtung Dynamit!

Burt is Shamus. Nobody leans on Shamus.

Can a man be more unimpressed by a naked lady than Burt is?

Wayne on Wheels!

Seattle...where one old cowhand went.

Nearing the end of the line...

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mike's Murder (1984, James Bridges)

I've always respected the considerable talents of Debra Winger, but always from somewhat of a distance because none of her films are especially close to my heart. After finally watching James Bridges' Mike's Murder, I am firmly entrenched in the Winger camp. Ironically, Mike's Murder is one of her most obscure films due, in part, to its unavailability on DVD for so long (it's now available via the Warner Archive). Even though it came in the midst of her highest visibility, sandwiched between Urban Cowboy, An Officer and a Gentleman, and Terms of Endearment, Mike's Murder tanked at the box office and is barely remembered today.

Bridges, the man behind Urban Cowboy tailored the script of Mike's Murder for his one and only choice, Winger. She is perfect as Betty Parrish, a somewhat introverted bank teller who becomes involved in an on-again, off-again relationship with doomed tennis pro and small-time coke dealer, Mike Chihutsky (Mark Keyloun). After Mike meets his unfortunate fate, Betty trying to find some semblance of closure, is thrust into a seamy world she previously knew almost nothing about. Even though he was completely unreliable and barely there, he had a considerable hold on Betty. Only after Mike dies, does she meet the others that Mike touched: older photographer Sam (Robert Crosson) and music producer Phillip (Paul Winfield), both of whom loved Mike, and Pete (Darrell Larson), a slimy hanger-on who is Mike's drug-dealing partner.

Mike's Murder was originally intended to be told in a non-linear fashion, nearly 20 years prior to Chris Nolan's Memento, a mystery built on this premise. However, after testing poorly with audiences, the film was shelved at the behest of the studio and re-edited into chronological order, with Joe Jackson's original songs and score mostly replaced by a more conventional John Barry score (I love Barry, but this is second-rate Barry to be sure). Jack Larson, longtime partner of the late Bridges, possesses a print of the original cut, said by those who have seen it to be far superior to the release version. As it is, it is a fascinating and moving neo-noir. As Jeffrey Wells, has pointed out in his tribute to the film, it was a case of a good film coming along at the wrong time. When a good chunk of the moviegoing public was primed for big explosions and special effects, here was a small-scale, human drama about very regular people getting involved over their heads.

On top of this, Bridges filled the narrative with offbeat, daring touches, particularly for a mainstream Hollywood production. Most prominent, of course, is its refreshingly nonchalant portrayal of gays (Winfield and Crosson's characters). In addition, Bridges has fun with the peripheral character, Richard (Dan Shor), a comically pretentious performance artist, and friend of Betty's, who at one point has a wild art opening populated by heavily made-up New Wavers, including scenester of the moment, Spazz Attack [scroll about a 1/4 down the page for a small profile on Spazz Attack].

Some of Jackson's excellent songs (which are closely related to his classic Night and Day LP) survive and they are joined by a smart selection of songs from the era including tracks by Chaz Jankel, The Tubes, Devo, Kool and the Gang, Stray Cats, and the B-52's. Cinematographer Reynaldo Villalobos, who had previously shot the evocative Risky Business, lends the film a strong visual look and Bridges and his art and production designers make great use of interesting, authentic L.A. locations.

All this goes towards creating a very strong mood piece. Ostensibly a mystery, the film is truly interested in Betty's discovery of the real Mike, something she could, unfortunately, only do after he was dead. Winger is entirely believable and sympathetic in this role; nothing is done very big or over the top. Nowhere is this more evident than in her biggest emotional moment of the film--when's she's informed of Mike's death. She doesn't cry or scream, but her deep hurt and despair can be seen in her eyes. She loved Mike. Winger's a marvel here and so is Paul Winfield who has one of his best, albeit brief, parts (I believe this was one of two times that Winfield, who was gay, played a gay character on film) as the other person who was in love with Mike. The scene in which Winfield's Phillip painfully opens Betty's eyes to the truth about Mike and his world is heartbreaking and the most brilliant moment in a powerful film that sticks with you long after it's over.

"...about cops--by a cop!"

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And Chuck Connors as Claw Zuckerman

Last week, I ventured into the film section of one of my favorite used bookstores, whilst waiting to go into a movie, and came out with a couple of out-of-print, coffee table-size hardcovers, John Springer and Jack Hamilton's They Had Faces Then: Superstars, Stars and Starlets of the 1930's (Citadel Press, 1974) and Harry Hossent's The Movie Treasury Gangster Movies: Gangsters, Hoodlums and Tough Guys of the Screen (Octopus Books, 1974). No dust-jackets, but in otherwise acceptable condition.

Both feature some gorgeous full-page and two-page stills. Here's a few from the gangster book from the then-new 99 and 44/100% Dead and the then-recent Shamus: