Films that have a moral condemnation about the seedy underbelly of life but still try to offer up a little titillation along the way have been around since the beginning of cinema. Sleazeploitation, if you will. Think of all those sexy pre-Code films and then consider the gangster and later noir period when the arousing exploits of a hatcheck girl would be stymied by the censors, making sure we knew this was amoral behavior. By the '70s and Midnight Cowboy, the sex industry had become a full-fledged and often legal enterprise and shock was less easy. Sleazeploitation films often deal with an innocent seeing the seedy world that has been around him all this time (and usually in such sleaze capitals as New York or Los Angeles). It's most interesting when big name directors make these films; of course when guys like Brian De Palma (Body Double) or Paul Schrader (Hardcore) make films about such subject matter it’s not shocking because they have a dark history in exploitation-ish cinema. That’s what make one of the great sleazy thrillers of the '80s, 52 Pick-Up, all the more interesting. It was directed by the great John Frankenheimer, a guy who was an innovator in the early dawn of live television and by the '60s was a major director of classics The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seconds and Seven Days in May. In the '70s he generally moved to straight but tasteful thrillers like French Connection II and Black Sunday, but he ended the decade on a sour note with the mutant bear horror dud Prophecy. The '80s meant mostly forgettable work for hire, including 52 Pick-Up, which in ’86 was a box office bust and mostly written off by critics as trash--and I can sorta see why. But on a recent screening, I was struck with just how intense and exciting it actually is; this is a film that may have a cornball dated score and we may laugh at the clothes, but it actually ages well and deserves reexamination as a possibly important film by an important director.
If the name Frankenheimer wasn’t enough to bring some class to 52 Pick-Up, consider this; it’s based on a book by one of America’s all-time great crime novelists, Elmore Leonard. At this point only his early Western novels had transferred well to film (3:10 to Yuma, Hombre). 52 Pick-Up had just been adapted into a film called The Ambassador with Robert Mitchum and Ellen Burstyn to little notice in ’84, and the following year Burt Reynolds would star in the horrible Leonard adaptation Stick. It really wasn’t until the '90s that Leonard adaptations would hit their zenith with the trifecta of Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown. For Frankenheimer, Leonard adapted the book himself (with John Steppling), changing the setting from his hometown of Detroit in the book to, of course, the more glamorously seedy Los Angeles.Continue Reading
Before novelist Thomas Harris created the character of Hannibal Lecter for his Red Dragon book series, he had written one other novel entitled Black Sunday. It was a terrorist thriller obviously inspired by the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The adaptation for the screen by legendary screenwriter Ernst Lehman (North by Northwest, Sweet Smell of Success) provides the setting for one of the best action flicks of the 1970s and another cool movie notch in the belt for director John Frankenheimer. Along with The Deep released the same year (’77), Black Sunday would provide the peak role for actor Robert Shaw as a big star leading man, before tragically dying of a heart attack the following year.
A kinda sexy Palestinian terrorist, Dahlia (Marthe Keller, who played a similarly spooky Euro a year earlier in Marathon Man) finds the perfect boyfriend—Vietnam Vet Mike Lander (Bruce Dern, in his full whacked-out mode) who works once a week as a Goodyear blimp pilot for the NFL. To make a point about America’s support for Israel, she convinces him to fill the blimp up with explosives and blow up the Super Bowl. (Oh yeah, the President is going to be attending the game, too). Luckily, badass Israeli intelligence agent David Kabakov (Shaw) is on her tail.
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Situated somewhere in the middle of two closely related movie trends of the 1970s - the "All-Star Cast Disaster Movie" (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake) and the "Terrorist Disaster Movie" (Two-Minute Warning, Skyjacked, Black Sunday) - Rollercoaster from 1977 nestles nicely in its own netherworld, not realizing that the genre was running out of steam (Beyond The Poseidon Adventure anyone?). Although the "Disaster Movie" would continue to reemerge in Hollywood for decades under new guises (Independence Day, 2012, Dante’s Peak, etc.), its Golden Age was really when a guy like George Kennedy or Charlton Heston was at the rudder and stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still available to be carted in on their wheelchairs to make an appearance and collect their checks. Rollercoaster did manage to dig up a couple of legends (Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda) and a sorta cult name actress (Susan Strasberg, maybe more famous as the daughter of Actor’s Studio guru Lee Strasberg), along with a pair of '70s names (George Segal and Timothy Bottoms). Director James Goldstone, whose most important credit may actually be the second pilot of the Star Trek TV series, manages to employ some Alfred Hitchcock cat-and-mouse tricks to generate suspense and give a dying genre a last gasp of breath.
To think that Bottoms started the decade off with two great movies (The Last Picture Show and The Paper Chase), in Rollercoaster he plays “Young Man,” a zombie-like psycho who is blowing up rollercoasters around the country in order to extort a million dollar ransom from the companies that own the parks. After an explosion on a rollercoaster, ride-inspector Harry Calder (Segal) is the first to figure out that this was no accident. He’s a regular guy with a teenage daughter (Helen Hunt, in her first movie) whom he often pawns off on his girlfriend (Strasberg), and a deep anti-authority complex, to the chagrin of his hateful boss (a brief Fonda clearly trying to up his SAG pension numbers). Bottoms makes Segal his point man as he threatens more bombings and the FBI joins him, with the angriest FBI head-man of all time (played by the one time great Widmark, who just spews intensity here) who seems to hate Segal even more than Fonda. The highlight is an intense scene in an amusement park, as Segal is forced to deliver money to Bottoms and instead ends up carrying a bomb onto a coaster. It all leads to Segal having to argue with the dumbbells in charge of the investigation and a showdown with the terrorist who looks to ruin the upcoming 4th of July festivities at one of the many possible amusement parks in America (and he does end up slightly disrupting the big Sparks concert at Six Flags Magic Mountain).Continue Reading
With post-Vietnam War movies there is a “Vietnam Vet taking down his enemies” genre that would include the pulp biggies Taxi Driver, Billy Jack and First Blood, as well as pure vigilante exploitation films like Eye of the Tiger, Vigilante Force, The Exterminator, The Annihilators and Gordon’s War (not to be confused with the ‘Nam vets that appear as crazies in Targets, Black Sunday, Skyjacked and Earthquake or the zombie vets of Cannibal Apocalypse). Somewhere between pulp and vetploitation lays the very intense and violent Rolling Thunder. This was director Joe Flynn’s followup to his interesting crime thriller The Outfit. Paul Schrader (most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) wrote the screenplay though he claims it was reworked away from his original intention by credited co-writer Heywood Gould (Fort Apache the Bronx and Cocktail). Either way Rolling Thunder definitely carries Schrader’s signature theme of the lonely loner on a self-destructive path against society while seeking his own kind of redemption.
The film opens with Denny Brooks’ ballad “San Antone,” which was used similarly in The Ninth Configuration (he also sang the theme to the Chuck Norris choppy-socky Breaker! Breaker!). After spending years as POWs, Major Charles Rane (William Devane) and Sergeant Johnny Vohden (a very young and very intense Tommy Lee Jones) finally return home to Texas. Of course, we know from our film studies, going as far back as William Wyler’s WWII drama The Best Years of Our Lives, that returning vets have a tough time readjusting. And Rane is no different. His pretty wife Janet (Lisa Blake Richards of TV’s Dark Shadows) tries to help him ease back into civilian life, but he senses she has moved on (it’s obvious she has been involved with a local cop), and his son doesn’t even remember him. Rane suffers from PTSD and is emotionally distant, even turning down the advances of a young military groupie, Linda (Linda Haynes). The town tries to make him feel welcomed with a parade, a new car and over two grand in silver dollars (one for every day he was in captivity).Continue Reading
Produced by Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (Rocky, Raging Bull, etc.), The Split is a lost relic. Besides being the first film to ever receive an “R” rating by the ratings board, it’s a nifty heist film with a great cast full of fascinating credentials. Because it stars football star turned actor Jim Brown (and has Diahann Carroll as his ex-wife and a funky-lite Quincy Jones score), it’s often lumped in as an early blaxploitation flick. It’s not. Directed by a Scotsman, Gordon Flemyng, (who did a lot of '60s Dr. Who) and written by the great crime writer Donald Westlake (credited in the script under his equally known alias Richard Stark), this is the guy who wrote the books that became Point Blank (and later Payback), as well as The Hot Rock and The Outfit, and later wrote the script for The Grifters. So The Split could have easily been a vehicle for Lee Marvin, Rock Hudson, James Coburn or any other leading man of the era. It just so happens that Brown took the role. It’s a gritty little crime flick. It barely even qualifies as crooksploitation. Yes, it’s an imperfect film (chunkily directed), but it's still entertaining with some nice ’68 Los Angeles locations and some wild twists.
Fresh out of the slammer McClain (Brown) is recruited by Gladys (Julie Harris) to pull a big heist at the Los Angeles Coliseum (shades of the race track robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing). McClain gathers an all-star cool cast to take part in the caper: tough guy Ernest Borgnine, escape artist/racist Warren Oates (a little less oily than he was a year earlier in In The Heat of the Night), limo driver Jack Klugman and creepy hit-man Donald Sutherland (still two tears before MASH made him a star). In a very complicated robbery and clever escape, the gang gets away with over a half-million bucks. But it’s after the heist when the real drama starts. It’s what happens to the loot before “the split” that cause the usual problems of greed and suspicion. First, the ex-wife has a sadistic, rapey landlord (James Whitmore) who kills her and steals the money, and then a crooked cop, Walter Brill (the great Gene Hackman pre-testing for Popeye Doyle) gets involved. The film becomes a stand-off for the money between McClain, Gladys, the gang and Brill.Continue Reading