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
American director Brian De Palma has a long and often controversial filmography. He started out doing counterculture social satires but found his true calling as cinema’s foremost Hitchcock imitator and made a name for himself with his generous use of fake blood and topless women in danger. In the beginning he was often associated with his pals the movie brats (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, etc.) who stormed the gates of Hollywood and took advantage of the brief period in the '70s between the era of the studio system and corporate conglomeration, when directors ruled with more personal projects. While many of his peers dominated the awards and critics' lists, De Palma was more of a B-movie director who well into the blockbuster '80s had a hit-and-miss record, which in retrospect, is at least always interesting. Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow create the perfect tribute with their endlessly fascinating documentary De Palma: no talking heads, just the always-bearded director discussing each film, year-by-year with plenty of clips to accompany him.
De Palma began his career in academia and on the fringes, a true independent director, doing unfunny comedies. His peak of unfunniness came with his first studio picture, the horrible Tommy Smothers vehicle Get to Know Your Rabbit. It bombed and De Palma reinvented himself with the bizarre cult musical Phantom of the Paradise and the very Hitchcockian thriller Sisters (which still stands up today, for me, as maybe his best film). Its mild acclaim and success got him a chance to direct the high profile adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The film was a smash and De Palma became a brand name. He has had some hits: Dressed to Kill, Scarface (which mostly found its audience later via cable and videotape), The Untouchables and Mission Impossible (more a Tom Cruise production than a De Palma joint). He made a pretty good movie, Carlito’s Way (mostly memorable because of Sean Penn’s brilliant performance as Al Pacino’s coked-out lawyer), but most of his other films have ranged from forgettable to not very good.Continue Reading
Dressed to Kill
Throughout his career, Brian De Palma has been said to mimic Hitchcock, either as praise or as derision. Yet that conventional wisdom does a disservice to the unique cinematic language showcased in films such as Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), Sisters (1973), and Blow Out (1981). Perhaps no other work comes closer to epitomizing the director's obsessions and sensibilities better than Dressed to Kill (1980), a sexy, bloody, and at time darkly humorous thriller that borrows heavily from Hitchcock but is quintessentially De Palma.
Those who have not seen Dressed to Kill should stop reading and save its surprises for the first viewing. The film bears many similarities to Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho, with echoes of Vertigo (1958) and Spellbound (1945). It opens with a dream sequence in which Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson), an emotionally dissatisfied housewife, sensually showers while watching her husband shave. Suddenly, the hand of an unseen attacker grasps her mouth, and we come to realize the sadomasochistic undercurrent of her fantasy.Continue Reading
Before film books exploded as a genre in the 1970s, the most significant published books about the art of film were James Agee’s two volume Film I & II in ’48 and ’52 and Pauline Kael’s works on late '60s film criticism, I Lost It at the Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But the most relevant book on film -- the one that is still of major importance today -- was Hitchcock/Truffaut by the great French filmmaker Francois Truffaut. Starting his career as a very influential film critic and essayist for (among other publications) Cahiers du Cinéma, he is usually cited as the inventor of the “auteur theory,” which gave the director the final artistic credit for the merits of a film (as opposed to the producer, who in Hollywood was just as often considered a film’s true maestro). He, along with other young French film fanatics, would begin to branch out and direct their own movies; they became the group now known as the French New Wave (or The Nouvelle Vague), which includes Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Demy, Éric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol and Agnès Varda. This crew of filmmakers can be considered the original movie brats, as opposed to the generation of directors before them. They were raised on movies and cinema culture and also were keenly aware of a director’s body of work as a whole instead of by individual movies. (The American generation that came to prominence in the '70s was actually called “the movie brats.” This term was applied to Coppola, Spielberg, De Palma and Scorsese, who were obviously deeply influenced by their French forerunners).
Another major influence on Truffaut and his friends was an appreciation for Hollywood B-Movie and genre directors, who were under-appreciated in America: journeymen and mavericks like Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Budd Boetticher and strangely, Frank Tashlin. And while Truffaut also adored the acclaimed masters like Ford, Hawks, and Welles, his favorite was Alfred Hitchcock. Though his career went back to the silents (he made the very first feature-length British talkie), and he was usually considered box office gold and was as famous a director as there was, in the early '60s Hitchcock was still usually dismissed in American and British critical circles as strictly a popcorn director. Truffaut single-handedly set about changing that. Beginning in ’62 he started recording long, in-depth conversations with Hitchcock (aided by his American collaborator and translator Helen Scott), covering his entire body of work. He spent years compiling and editing them, and adding intricate frame-by-frame photos from his films. Finally, in ’67 the book Hitchcock/Truffaut was published and helped to change Hitchcock’s reputation from a pure entertainer to a true artist and is still today considered a bible for filmmakers and movie geeks.Continue Reading
One would think that as blunt a director as Sam Fuller would have little use for metaphor when making a film about racism, but the director best known for his hard-hitting pulpy exposes of social injustice uses symbolism in White Dog as fluently as he used shock value in his previous films, without omitting any of the controversy expected of him. When Fuller made White Dog he had already pushed buttons with Shock Corridor’s blunt portrayal of inhumane conditions in sanitariums in the 1950s and The Naked Kiss’s vitriolic condemnation of small town hypocrisy. So why did Paramount seek out Fuller to co-write and direct a film based on a true story of a dog trained to attack Blacks, and then shelve the finished product? Fuller was back in favor after The Big Red One (1980), his first film after he made Shark! with Burt Reynolds in 1969, won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. Paramount pitched Fuller the concept, based on a Romain Gary article for Life magazine that Gary had adapted from his book Chien Blanc, and Fuller signed on to co-write the script with Curtis Hanson and direct the film. Together they adapted the non-fiction work into the story of Julie Sawyer, an aspiring actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd while driving in the dark canyon roads of the Hollywood Hills. She rescues the dog, but after he attacks a co-worker, Julie believes that she has a former attack dog for a pet and takes him to movie set animal trainer Carruthers to reverse his aggressive training. When he sees the dog maul a Black man, he tells Julie that she has a “white dog,” a dog trained by racists to attack only Blacks. Keyes, a Black trainer with an anthropological bent, attempts to deprogram Julie’s racist dog as an experiment in the reversal of racial inculcation. Paramount was intent to avoid any accusations of insensitivity and in an attempt to obviate any complaints asked the president of the Beverly Hills chapter of the NAACP to be on set during the shoot. After the film’s completion the organization voiced its disapproval of the film and Paramount decided to forgo its release.
This Criterion release is the first time White Dog has been available in the U.S. It never had a theatrical release here (although it did in France where it had decent ticket sales) and it has never been available on Beta, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD or shown on television. Those of us who were lucky enough to rent (or work, *hech-hem*) at Mondo Kim’s in the East Village could rent a fuzzy bootleg with overmodulated sound. It was painful to listen to Ennio Morricone’s score in such a distorted form, but Faustian bargains were made to glimpse Fuller’s recondite masterpiece. Criterion does film scholars and the film community an immeasurable service when they release rare and obscure films like White Dog, Salo, Taste of Cherry, Sans Soleil, etc., more than amply making up for the plastic and human resources the label wastes the few times it releases films of questionable cinematic value that were already in wide circulation (I’m not going to name names. But one starts with Chasing…) By releasing White Dog Criterion is sharing with viewers one the strongest denunciations of racism in American film history, a denunciation that was stolen from audiences by Paramount’s timidity and the NAACP’s short-sightedness.Continue Reading