Emperor of the North
Starting with Bonnie and Clyde in ’67 and throughout the '70s, the Depression in America became an exciting setting for a whole slew of films. That dark period of the 1930s sometimes became romantically re-imagined as a freewheelin’ adventure time or was used more dramatically as a metaphor for current times. Prime examples include The Sting, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Paper Moon, Dillinger, Boxcar Bertha, and Hard Times. And though it does not get off to the most promising start, Robert Aldrich’s 1973 movie, Emperor of the North, ends up being one of the best action flicks of the decade, as well as an almost comic-book Valentine to the era.
After opening with a scroll about the history of hobos riding the rails, Emperor of the North then rolls into the most unfortunate film theme song with all-stars behind it, maybe ever. “A Man and a Train,” with lyrics by the great Hal David (partner of Burt Bacharach), music by the nearly legendary Frank De Vol (he scored most of Aldrich’s films and The Brady Bunch!) and sung by Marty Robbins (”El Paso”), features gems like “a man's not a train and a train's not a man. A man can do things that a train never can.” I’m not sure what the word is for homoeroticism between a man and a train, but this song is it.Continue Reading
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
The Dirty Dozen
The Dirty Dozen, the granddaddy of action super-team flicks, took the sheen off the WWII big ensemble picture (The Longest Day, The Great Escape) and mixed in the military cynicism that was bubbling up (encouraged by doubt about the Vietnam War) with rowdy anti-heroics (MASH, Kelly’s Heroes). Like so many films to follow, the film breaks into two halves easily: first, assembling the team full of anti-authority types (Stripes); and second, the undercover suicide mission behind enemy lines (Inglourious Basterds). After years of dependable supporting performances in The Wild One, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ship of Fools, this may be silver haired, tough guy actor Lee Marvin's signature role (with apologies to the great crime thriller Point Blank and his Oscar winning work in the otherwise forgettable Cat Ballou). The Dirty Dozen gives Marvin the perfect opportunity to showcase his brawn as well as his sense of humor. As Major Reisman, he is assigned the task of putting together a WWII team made of 12 creeps and criminals, many of whom are facing the noose, to first train and then sneak into France before D-Day to kill a group of high-end Nazis (with their dates) at a fancy chateau shindig.
The team is made up of many future stars, or at least interesting cinematic curios...Continue Reading
The Longest Yard (1974)
Along with Deliverance a few years earlier and Boogie Nights decades later, The Longest Yard is one the three best movies of Burt Reynolds' career (there are not a lot of good ones to choose from) and maybe his best performance. It’s the perfect role to show off his machismo sense of humor and the laid back, good-ol’ boy charm that made him a superstar in the '70s. He had his share of very successful films (Smokey and The Bandit, etc) and a few nice ones (Starting Over), but the trio of Deliverance, Boogie Nights, and especially The Longest Yard are about the only times he teamed with major directors and had perfect scripts to suit him. (By the time he did Nickelodeon with Peter Bogdanovich or Rough Cut with Don Siegel or Semi-Tough with Michael Ritchie those once great directors' shelf-lives had already expired.)
Director Robert Aldrich had a diverse and distinguished career - only a handful of home runs, but those hits were massive. Moving from television to film he would make one of the last great noir films, Kiss Me Deadly, and then the classily twisted What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?. He would direct a number of solid action films including Flight of The Phoenix, Too Late The Hero, and peak with the wildly popular rowdy WWII film, The Dirty Dozen. The Longest Yard would repeat the cynical formula, making the bad guys the heroes. And with it Aldrich would prove he still had one more great film in him (unfortunately after The Longest Yard the rest of his career was pretty much junk, including reteaming with Reynolds for the listless detective film Hustle).Continue Reading
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a movie lodged right into our pop cultural DNA somewhere between Psycho and Stonewall, and I would wager that its reputation as a “camp classic” might precede it to the film’s detriment because its greatness is in spite of its cultural baggage as a Hollywood Babylon-style punch line. Throughout the years since its release the film has been referenced, paid homage to, and parodied more times than I probably know about. There’s just something about the premise of two notorious aging movie queens tearing into one another—no one seems able to resist that glamorously morbid premise. By the early 1960s Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were at the point in their careers where they had to spoof themselves in a Hollywood horror story to get the attention of an audience that had long since deserted them. It was a risk that paid off and ultimately redefined the kinds of roles being offered to aging movie stars. …Baby Jane? was more than just a sleeper hit that resuscitated a few careers; it became a phenomenon that helped spawn a whole cottage industry of films starring has-been actresses pouring on the fake blood and brandishing pick axes. People wanted to see these one-time "it girls" playing murderous grandmas. It was the age of the Hagsploitation horror flick and …Baby Jane? was the one that started it all.
But let me reiterate, I come to praise What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as a sharp Hollywood satire, not to bury it under more faint praise as a “camp classic,” though there’s no denying it’s the Shakespearian gold standard for that. The problem is that identifying something as camp tends to negate it as anything other than a joke—even a knowing joke— and what makes What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable goes far beyond its kitsch value. It’s a darkly comic satire in the vein of Sunset Boulevard but with weirder and more compelling characters. And it’s not just Davis and Crawford who remind us of why they were great to begin with. The supporting cast is just as good as they are—Victor Buono as the portly would-be suitor and artistic collaborator of Jane is particularly excellent. And in Robert Aldrich the film has a curiously awesome choice for a director. Aldrich could be described as a man’s man kind of director who made war pictures and nasty offbeat noirs like Kiss Me Deadly. Hiring him to direct a movie about two old Hollywood legends at each other’s throats was an inspired choice. Aldrich liked perversity and clearly the innate perversity of the film’s premise must have appealed to him. But he also locates the pathos in the characters and makes us care about what happens to them. It’s hard to categorize What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as anything other than a classic. It’s a Hollywood satire, it’s a lurid tragedy, a gothic noir of sorts - kind of horrific, certainly camp, and very funny. It has much to say about the two legendary leads and their notorious dislike of each other as it does about an industry that treats women terribly.Continue Reading