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
At one time Burt Reynolds was a megastar. By 1987 the shine was thinning, as his hair piece was thickening. Just two years after his arch '70s box office king rival Clint Eastwood made his obligatory quasi-Shane remake Pale Rider (the least of the four Westerns Clint directed), Reynolds did his own less blatant variation of Shane, with an equally simple title: Malone. Updated, instead of an old-timey oater, Malone is more of an '80s muscle film. This could have been a by-the-numbers vehicle for any number of steroidy non-actors of the day; the ace up the sleeve here is the lovely British Columbia backdrop and Reynolds' considerable charm. Even when he seems to be barely trying he’s much more likable then most of the action stars of the period. Back in his salad days (the '70s) Reynolds starred in two bona-fide classics, Deliverance and The Longest Yard, and had a massive box office hit with Smokey and The Bandit. But by the '80s--though Reynolds was still a very popular personality--none of the vehicles really matched his talent. Looking back years later, as the smoke has cleared, Malone is probably his most entertaining film of the decade.
Burt plays Malone, an ex-CIA hitman trying to escape his past (is there any other kind?) and make a break from his sexy handler (Lauren Hutton). After hitting the open road, his car ends up breaking down in a small mountain town where he befriends a clean cut gas station owning family, the Barlows. Father and his teenage daughter (Scott Wilson and Cynthia Gibb) take him in and luckily for them Malone also happens to be handy with a wrench for fixing engines. It turns out Malone happened to show up in the knick of time, as the town is being bought up by a nasty rich guy, Delany ( the alway dependable Cliff Robertson). The Barlows won’t sell, even under pressure from the town’s corrupt cops (lead by Kenneth McMillan) and Delany’s own band of thugs, plus the usual suspects of '80s B-creeps--including many familiar faces such as Tracy Walter (Batman) and Dennis Burkley (the lovable big mute biker from Mask). The bad guys try to exert muscle and Burt kills a couple of them. Shane had that famous tree trunk digging scene, but Burt doesn’t exert much sweat. Although he does get shot, giving Hutton a chance to come back to bandage him up and have a quickie romance before the creeps kill her. This leads to an all out war as Malone is forced to use his considerable killing skills to take out the security team and finally have it out with Delany. And then, very abruptly, it ends. But this was the '80s. Who wanted to sit through a movie much longer then ninety minutes? We had to get to the arcade.Continue Reading
The third and the best of the four movies Burt Reynolds directed and starred in, Sharky’s Machine is often written off as Burt’s attempt at a Dirty Harry like franchise starter since he and Clint Eastwood were often linked as rival '70s macho mega-stars. But where Clint would go on to reinvent himself as an awards bait elder statesman of economical directing, this would unfortunately be Burt’s last memorable movie as a major leading man. (Of course, sixteen years later he would score his only Oscar nomination for his great supporting performance in Boogie Nights). Sharky’s Machine now feels more reminiscent of '70s Italian crime flicks known as Poliziotteschi films than it does Dirty Harry, as these films often dealt with dirty and violent cops in the seedier side of politics, organized crime and prostitution. As Sharky, it’s one of those rare, less winky performances from Reynolds. Though he can’t help but ooze charm, he also creates a sometimes unlikable character as the film veers fairly effortlessly from rowdy Joseph Wambaugh type police station mayhem picture to a Rear Window inspired erotic thriller to a very gripping final confrontation.
Based on a book by the gritty novelist William Diehl (Primal Fear), Burt actually took over direction when his Deliverance helmer John Boorman got stuck finishing Excalibur. Atlanta narcotics cop Tom Sharky is one of those plays-by-his-own-rules badasses who has been bumped downstairs to vice when a sting goes wrong. He's surrounded by a motley crew of great character actors including Bernie Casey (Revenge of The Nerds), Richard Libertini (Fletch), John Fiedler (12 Angry Men and the voice of Piglet in Winnie the Pooh), Brian Keith (The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, the original The Parent Trap) and the great Charles Durning (Dog Day Afternoon, Tootsie, at his most “Durningist”). They are stuck busting hookers to make the town look presentable to a candidate for governor, Donald Hotchkins (Earl Holliman of TV’s Police Woman). It turns out the politician is tied to a high-priced call girl ring led by the Italian sleazoid, Victor D'Anton (Vittorio Gassman, a major Italian actor whose resume before Sharky’s Machine spanned from Big Deal on Madonna Street to the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb!), who is killing off his own women with a hitman played by the always reliably creepy Henry Silva (one of the original Ocean’s Eleven!)Continue Reading
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading
Of all the so called Jaws rip-offs - and there were plenty - the best of the lot was The Deep. Most were just exploitation quickies (Great White, Barracuda and, of course, the very entertaining Piranha), but a few actually had classy casts (John Huston, Shelly Winters and Henry Fonda in Tentacles; Richard Harris and Charlotte Rampling in Orca). The Deep, besides having a distinguished cast (Nick Nolte, Jacqueline Bisset, Robert Shaw, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach) and a credible action director, Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), most importantly, was written by Peter Benchley, the author who wrote the novel Jaws (though everyone agrees the movie Jaws was better than the book). The Deep was his follow-up and although much of it does take place underwater and it even has a nasty electric eel, it’s less a killer fish flick and more of a smuggling thriller (which makes sense since Jaws the novel had a minor but still awkward gangster subplot). But because Benchley and the producers were obviously trying to cash in on the Jaws phenomenon it still, fairly or unfairly, falls into the “rip-off” genre. But, hey, better to be the best “Jaws Rip-Off Flick” than nothing at all.
Benchley adapted his novel along with co-screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn (who wrote the great Burt Reynolds prison football flick The Longest Yard). Perhaps the personal histories and relationship dynamics between the characters were a little more fleshed out in longer book form, but on screen they are just touched on, teased out enough to make the movie feel a little more complicated than it probably deserves. Uber-sexy couple David (Nolte in his first big screen star vehicle after his brilliant performance in the TV mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man) and Gail (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda and while scuba diving they discover an abandoned old shipwreck, The Goliath. Among the artifacts they discover is a little vial of liquid. It turns out the cute bottle is filled with morphine and the bottom of the ship is covered in it (it was to be used as medical supplies during WWII). This gets the local drug kingpin, Cloche (Gossett Jr.), sniffing around them, knowing it could be worth millions up on the streets of New York. But they hook up with the local treasure-hunter, Treece (Robert Shaw of Jaws, in a less antisocial but equally knowing role), whose team includes his brutish bodyguard, Kevin (Robert Tessier, the often bald-headed tough guy familiar to '70s and '80s B-movie fans), and an untrustworthy old sailor named, oddly enough, Coffin (classic Actor’s Studio super ham Eli Wallach), who is the only survivor of The Goliath. Shaw and Nolte scuba dive and dig up the drug and also uncover another ship full of gold jewelry. There’s talk of some kind of old-timey conspiracy about the king of Spain and a noblewoman. There's a killer eel down there and some sharks make a dangerous cameo. Haitian voodoo comes into it and Bisset often flaunts a lovely wet T-shirt. It has a very “early James Bond” like score by John Barry and a discofied end-credits song by Donna Summer (though her vocals seem to be missing from the DVD version). Oh, and the underwater sequences are spectacularly shot.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