Thursday 9 February 2017

Vigilante Force [1976]

VIGILANTE FORCE is an American action thriller that was written and directed by George Armitage and originally released in September 1976 by United Artists.  It stars Kris Kristofferson, Jan-Michael Vincent, Victoria Principal and Bernadette Peters.  After oil is found in a small Californian town it finds itself overrun by hordes of itinerant workers, hell bent on raucous mayhem on their days off.  With the small police department unable to maintain order, they call in a Vietnam veteran to dispense justice with no questions asked.

This is another film that I have at last managed to tick of my personal ‘lost films’ list, that is to say films I have wanted to see for a long time but have simply been unable to find, much less see.  Various films have held the number one slot on this list, each being deleted every time I’m lucky enough to track one down.  For the longest time, the Bryan Adams of lost films, if you will, was Richard C. Sarafian’s LOLLY MADONNA XXX [1973] very much the BEN-HUR of hicksploitation.  Then it was Sidney J. Furie’s LITTLE FAUSS & BIG HALSY [1970], the world’s premier Robert Redford / bike-racing picture.  Going back further, to the time when I used to literally give my list to my parents so they could keep an eye out for NTSC tapes on their trips to the States.  Via that route I managed to see Al Pacino and Gene Hackman in Jerry Schatzberg’s SCARECROW [1973] and Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON [1975].  The latter is of course now widely available in multiple formats which goes to show not only how much easier it is to see films these days but also how big important films can become lost too.

It has just struck me that all of the films mentioned above, including the subject of this piece, are from the early-mid 1970s.  And to them you could add Robert Altman’s NASHVILLE [1975] and Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE [1971].  Is this because my particular taste is for cinema from that period?  I would say that my taste in films knows no bounds so it can’t be that.  So is there something about that period, from a legal or commercial perspective, that meant it was easier for for films to fall into distribution / exhibition limbo?  Unfortunately my knowledge of that aspect of the film business is non-existent so the answer will have to wait for another day, if it ever comes.

Like many of the other films on my ‘lost’ list, VIGILANTE FORCE was something of a disappointment; because of the prolonged wait to get to see them, these films have unreasonable expectation piled on to them so perhaps that disappointment is inevitable.  More than thatm settling down to watch virtually any film for the first time there’s always that little feeling inside, the hope that it’ll turn out to be a classic - even more so if it has been one you’ve waited patiently for.  So while Armitage’s film certainly didn’t turn out to be one of those hoped-for classics, and while it wasn’t really worth the wait and expectation, it is a perfectly serviceable action thriller which amid the punch ups and explosions, manages to make one or two points about right-wing views and taking the law into your own hands.

Aaron (L) and Ben Arnold

Kristofferson and Vincent plays brothers (Aaron and Ben, respectively), the former a grizzled Vietnam veteran who might well have a screw loose; the latter a clean cut, hard-working blue collar kinda guy with a steady girlfriend and a personable demeanour.  Aaron is the guy upon whom Ben is asked to prevail to put a stop to the crime spree that the local oil boom has brought about.  I get that itinerant workers may bring some problems but I didn’t quite buy that they turned the small town into a hellhole, to the extent that it required the remedial measures adopted in pretty swift order by the town burghers.

Aaron and his good time girlfriend Little Dee (Bernadette Peters) before the **** hits the fan

Be that as it may, Aaron agrees to help and brings a lot of his war buddies with him.  Soon he is dispensing justice, Buford Pusser-style, via a pick-axe handle or whatever other blunt instrument he can get his hands on, which usually means his, er, hands.  Aaron pretty soon has the town licked into shape and his thoughts turn to how he might exploit the situation by establishing himself as the main man.  Only his brother Ben, and one or two wise old heads, can see what Aaron is up to and they resolve to put a stop to it.

In other words, having failed to adequately police their own town, the council make an ill-judged lurch to the right in circumventing the proper channels and bringing in some violent scumbags to restore law and order.  When they’ve done that, the violent scumbags start wreaking their own havoc, as is in the nature of violent scumbags so to do.  At that point, said council realise they’ve gone too far down a rocky road and everything goes tits up.  By way of context, I watched VIGILANTE FORCE not long after the inaugration of President Trump in the USA.  I get that he is the protest candidate, the only option remaining to those who feel so disenfranchised and disillusioned with mainstream politicians.  I get that, I really do.  But, like hiring a mentally-unstable and belligerent man to keep the peace, it represents something of a nuclear option and, as far as I can tell, is likely to end in tears.  This film isn’t a political allegory of course and it isn’t even a blackly comic satire.  But it is a useful reminder that, unlike say in DEATH WISH [1974], resorting to drastic measures to resolve problems best left to the authorities – however imperfect those authorities might be – generally ends in carnage.

Kris Kristofferson as Aaron Arnold

The time when Kris Kristofferson could topline a movie is many many years past now but in his day he was one of the most popular entertainers around.  He had a wider range than most critics give him credit for and he had, at least early in his acting career, a knack for choosing interesting and quirky projects which in some cases had points to make about modern American society, as is the case here.  He is a man I greatly admire, not merely for his films, or even for his music, but because he is a man of great integrity who has managed to rise above the superficiality and general baseness that you might expect from someone who has been world famous for nearly 50 years.  If you don’t know much about his work, then I can recommend catching pretty much anything he made in the 1970s and, especially, HEAVEN’S GATE, made in 1980, which despite the received wisdom is one of the greatest westerns ever made and one of the very few to directly address the racism and bloodshed of early US history.

Jan-Michael Vincent as Ben Arnold

The time when Jan-Michael Vincent could actually get on to a movie screen, much less topline his own movie, is sadly long gone.  These days the poor fellow is beset by a multitude of health problems, some self-inflicted, some not and his acting career seems over.  To be honest, after some early promise – and one hit TV series in the 1980s – it was a pretty disappointing career which in quality terms was over long before the health issues began. 

A pre-DALLAS Victoria Principal as Ben's girlfriend Linda

Director George Armitage hasn’t made many films but they’re all worth seeing, especially the utterly brilliant GROSSE POINTE BLANK, made in 1997, which stars John Cusack as a hitman persuaded to attend his high school 10-year reunion.  “Ten years!”

Saturday 14 January 2017

Move [1970]

MOVE is an American comedy that was directed by Stuart Rosenberg and originally released in February 1970 by 20th Century Fox.  It stars Elliott Gould and Paula Prentiss with support from John Larch, Genevieve Waite and Ron O’Neal.  Gould plays Hiram Jaffe, an aspirant playwright who writes pornographic novels to support him and his wife Dolly (Prentiss) and their enormous dog Murphy.  On the day the Jaffes are due to move to a new apartment he finds all sorts of problems and frustrations coming to a head, causing him to indulge in self-obsessed fantasies.

There were a lot of films like this around at the beginning of the 1970s, usually American, usually based on a novel or play, often starring Gould, or Alan Arkin, or Donald Sutherland, or a combination thereof, and often VERY SHOUTY.  This is a typical example.  Adapted from his own novel by Joel Lieber with assistance from Stan Hart – and I confess I haven’t read it – the film seems better suited to the page than the screen.  They are often determinedly kooky, with it, self-consciously daring, meandering and a little bit wearing.  LITTLE MURDERS [1971], which features all three of the aforementioned actors, and was directed by Arkin, is another good example.  The sub-genre is neatly encapsulated by a dinner party scene in which all the characters are shouting at each other and, in another little quirk typical of these films, repeat each other’s names a lot.

In MOVE, Gould’s character, on screen for virtually the whole running time, comes across as a desperately self-absorbed neurotic who can’t see the wood for the trees.  Now, the same might be said of other screen fantastists, particularly Billy Liar, but save for a tardy removal man, Jaffe doesn’t seem to have that much to be resentful about.  Billy Liar is essentially a sympathetic character by Jaffe is a moaner.  That the central character is thus a turn-off holes the film below the waterline and very early on too.

Like Billy Liar, Hiram Jaffe is an unreliable narrator, that is to say, the viewer isn’t always sure which scenes are fantasies and which are ‘reality’.  Generally speaking, the scenes with his wife seem to reality but the stuff about the telephonist, the removal man and possibly even The Girl is wholly imagined.  So what do the fantasies reveal about Jaffe?  Well, for a start he has a persecution complex.  The ‘removal man’ who has become his bete noir rings him several times to taunt him about his marriage, his house move and so on.  The ‘telephonist’ frustrates him repeatedly by refusing to pass on information or let him communicate directly with the real removal man.  I think these reflect Jaffe’s own feelings about his worth as a man and as a husband.  It’s only in this way that the film starts to make sense as, on the face of it, Jaffe is a dislikeable individual.

The pre-credits sequence: Hiram fantasises about being run down by a roller while his feet are stuck in hot tarmac and he can't MOVE (geddit??!!)
Jaffe has the great good fortune to be married to Paula Prentiss but for some unfathomable reason has grown distant from her.  It is hinted that the point of conflict between them is her desire for a child and his reluctance.  Ironically it isn’t until Jaffe has picked up and had sex with The Girl, whether it happens in reality or not, that he feels able to return to his wife.  Perhaps this indicates performance anxiety of some sort; in the era of Philip Roth’s ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (which was adapted into another early 70s kinky, kooky comedy, starring, incidentally, Paula Prentiss’s husband Richard Benjamin) sexual issues of this sort were all over the screen. 

Hiram fantasises about the recalcitrant telephonist who won't help him sort out his house MOVE (geddit??!!)

A fantasy about Hiram and Dolly's wedding in which he is unable to break the traditional glass

Another fantasy sequence, this time a fancy dress party hosted by his transvestite brother
Frankly, not much happens in MOVE.  Jaffe is ultimately compelled by his fantasies to confront his real life issues and it all ends happily ever after, with the family unit restored and a baby on the way.  A very conservative message actually, even though it is delivered with the two leads in the bath together.  Prior to that there is little more than a series of sketches – Hiram going berserk with the paint brush in his new flat; Hiram getting hassled in Central Park by a mounted patrolman (familiar character actor John Larch); Hiram imaging a shootout between his neighbours, one of whom (Ron O'Neal) has just bought a gun for his wife; recalling his wedding day; a family party.  None is particularly amusing and the net result is a dissatisfying experience.  Maybe it’s for this reason that MOVE is another of those films I occasionally cover which is, or was, very difficult for me to get hold of.  The print I did see was extremely ropey and the accomopanying stills reflect that.

Elliott Gould as Hiram Jaffe
Elliott Gould was one of the faces of early 70s American cinema, appearing in a string of right on the money fashionable films, the most successful of which was M*A*S*H [1970], thus beginning a working relationship with Robert Altman that stretched through at least four further pictures.  My personal favourite is THE LONG GOODBYE [1973] a contemporary adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel featuring the archetypal private eye Philip Marlowe.  Gould plays him as a somewhat slovenly, half-hearted investigator which incensed some film critics who were, presumably, Marlowe purists.  However, I side with those who think that although Gould’s interpretation is superficially the opposite of Marlowe he nevertheless has the same easy-going nature, a strong sense of principle and a dogged determination to see justice done, no matter how many beatings he has to take.  When the quality of US film-making declined in the late 70s and Gould found himself out of fashion, his star waned but he continues to be a prolific actor and livens up virtually everything he is cast in – which includes big budget productions like the OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy and CONTAGION [2011] - which shows both his enduring talent and the esteem in which he is held by those who know their cinema.

Paula Prentiss as Dolly
Paula Prentiss is an actress I am extremely fond of, despite not having seen many of her films.  The ones I have seen, including WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? [1967], CATCH 22 [1970], THE PARALLAX VIEW [1974] and THE STEPFORD WIVES [1975] she is brilliant in.  She has a very winning manner and a quite unique range of inflection in her voice which can be hilarious.  Sadly she more or less packed it in in the 1980s although I see she has a role in  a new horror film called I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE [2016] which I shall make a point of seeing.

Two supporting actors: Ron O'Neal, famous as SUPERFLY...

and John Larch, the kind of actor whom, once you recognise his face, you will see everywhere.
The director Stuart Rosenberg should be much better known than he is.  His best known film is COOL HAND LUKE [1967], perhaps the anti-authoritarian picture of the 60s but aside from that he made a number of highly professional pieces of entertainment that occasionally strove for a modicum of social comment, usually of a liberal persuasion, such as BRUBAKER [1980].  A film of his worth catching if you can track it down is WUSA [1970] starring Paul Newman a populist radio host on an extreme right radio station, which has some similarities with the better known and aforementioned THE PARALLAX VIEW.

Sunday 8 January 2017

The Love Machine [1971]

THE LOVE MACHINE is an American melodrama that was directed by Jack Haley Jr and adapted from the novel by Jacqueline Susann.  It was originally released in August 1971 by Columbia.  It stars John Phillip Law, Robert Ryan, David Hemmings, Dyan Cannon, Jackie Cooper and Jodi Wexler.  Law is Robin Stone an amoral and ambitious TV reporter who becomes the protégé of IBC network chief Greg Austin (Ryan).  The film charts his meteoric and controversial career rise as well as his prolific sex life.

Blimey, where does one start with a film like this?  Probably with the source, in this case the original novel by the original bonkbuster author Jacqueline Susann.  Most famous for ‘Beyond the Valley of the Dolls’, Susann’s is not a name one hears much these days but she was staggeringly successful in the 60s and 70s.  I read a quote about her once, from Andrew Bergman, who said:

She had a miserable life.  But she was determined to be famous.  She willed herself to be famous.  That’s what she wanted.  She was a failed actress, a failed gameshow host.  She was a sort of joke until the novels.
Jacqueline Susann appears in an uncredited cameo as a news anchor
And that could go for one or two of the characters in THE LOVE MACHINE because they simply will do anything to be successful.  Robin Stone exploits women, his boss, his colleagues and the television viewing public: by the time he becomes Production executive he is peddling what even he recognises to be crap purely because he knows the public will settle for it.

Greg Austin and Robin Stone
The boardroom politics are of less interest to Susann, and this film, than Stone’s complicated love life.  His is introduced to an endless supply of beautiful young woman by his only true friend, the homosexual fashion photographer Jerry Nelson (Hemmings).  The first we meet is Amanda, a needy young woman who soon becomes in thrall to Stone’s mix of narcissist and ladies’ man.  He was a good looking lad was John Phillip Law so it’s easy to see why the women fall for him but the character is such a blank space you are left scratching your head as to why they become quite so besotted with him.  In turn that makes you wonder whether the woman are all stupid and once you start thinking that about the characters you realise the whole is meant to be taken as seriously as a lager commercial.

Supermodel 'Amanda'(Jodi Wexler) ...

... and publicity girl Maureen (Ethel Evans), falling for Robin Stone
For THE LOVE MACHINE is not a drama, or even a melodrama, as I have stated above; it is a fantasy.  Susann herself said:

I write for women who read me in the goddam subways on the way home from work.  I know who they are because that’s who I used to be …  But here’s the catch.  All the people they envy in my books, the ones who are glamorous, or beautiful, or rich, or talented – they have to suffer, see, because that way the people who read me can get off the subway and go home feeling better about their crappy lives.
That quote reinforces the film as fantasy: there are almost no scenes involving the general public, no interaction with the great unwashed.  The vast majority of interiors – and it is mainly interiors – are boardrooms, naturally, luxury flats and mansions; nightclubs; TV studios and so on.  That is to say, exclusive locations – the habitat of the rich and famous, not the man in the street.  Susann does in her novel precisely as she says in that quote: there are the characters and there are real people.  In other words, she isn’t striving for reality or even heightened reality – she is peddling fantasy, a fact reinforced by the outrageous / ridiculous costumes sported by Dyan Cannon and Jodi Wexler.

Dyan Cannon, suffering in leopardskin
Fantasy of a particularly lurid type, as it goes.  There is more face-slapping, hair-pulling, miaowing and drinking neat vodka than in almost any other film I’ve ever seen.  A lot of it is done by David Hemmings, perhaps the least recognisably human character in the film.  I accept that it was made a long time ago but his depiction of the homosexual fixer Jerry Nelson is outrageously bad by today’s standards and could well have been even then.  He is from the leering, arch, effeminate, innuendo-laden, mincing school of gay cinema that would be recognisable only to Bette Midler.  Not only that but “faggot” is used, liberally, as a term of abuse.  Greg Austin and his consigliere attempt to break Stone from his lucrative contract by invoking the morals clause; not because of his bed-hopping, oh no, driving women to suicide because of his infidelity is fine, as is, seemingly, beating up prostitutes, but any whiff of homosexuality and he’s be out on his ear.

Robin Stone and Jerry Nelson
I can’t believe I’m saying this but despite its awfulness, THE LOVE MACHINE is terrifically watchable; probably because of its awfulness.  I don’t mean that in a ‘it’s so inept it’s funny’, Ed Wood sort of way (a thing I don’t actually agree with), but rather that because it knows what it is and pursues that through to the absolute bitter end – and the final punch up has to be seen to be believed – it achieves a kind of purity.  

What other film can offer you David Hemmings bitch-slapping Dyan Cannon as John Phillip Law wrestle a homosexual in the background?
This is presumably why bonkbusters, or airport novels, call them what you will, sell by the bucketload: if they give you what you want and demand then they’re irresistible.
John Phillip Law looked every inch the movie star and is a perfect fit for this particular role. 

John Phillip Law as Robin Stone
Most of the rest of the time he wasn’t much cop, frankly, but his impassivity, bordering on the sociopathic, is Robin Stone to a tee.  As I watched him cavort in his immaculate penthouse apartment I couldn’t help but think of Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s revolting ‘American Psycho’ and ironically Law doesn’t look unlike Christian Bale from the 1997 film adaptation.  Apparently he was only cast at the last minute because another actor had a traffic accident; there wasn’t enough time to alter the costumes so allegedly one can see his cuffs are too short.  I didn’t spot that I must confess but it’s not the sort of thing I generally keep an eye out for.  In the right part, as here, Law was good – such as the blind angel Pygar in BARBARELLA, or the superhero Diabolik in Mario Bava’s DANGER DIABOLIK [both 1968], and Sinbad in THE GOLDEN VOYAGE OF SINBAD [1973].  There’s a pattern there no?  Supermen.  And that’s what he looked like.

From the mid-70s onwards the star began to wane and, like a lot of good-looking second-string actors, he went to Europe and made lots of genre movies.  When, particularly, Italian exploitation cinema faded away he moved back to the States and started appearing in the American equivalent, which in practice means people like Fred Olen Ray.  Now, I don’t mind Fred Olen Ray, I think his films are entertaining for the most part but when an actor finds himself appearing in them it’s pretty much curtains – I’m talking titles such as ALIENATOR and SPACE MUTINY.  It’s weird to think that there is only one degree of separation between Ray and one of my all-time heroes Robert Ryan, who in THE LOVE MACHINE delivers a professional if uninspired performance.

Robert Ryan as Greg Austin and Dyan Cannon as his wife Judith
David Hemmings is another actor I like, not so much because he was a great actor but because he made interesting films.  He is most famous of course as the iconic star of Michelangelo Antonioni's classic BLOW-UP [1966], a role he was apparently lucky to get and in which he played another photographer.  However, like Terence Stamp, who I believe was also considered, he just had that 60s look that was perfect for the role.  He lost his lean physique and good looks quite early on for a movie and pretty quickly was playing second lead parts, such as he does here.  Perhaps that's why his thoughts turned to direction at a much earlier stage than most actors, if they ever do.  He made JUST A GIGOLO [1978], the David Bowie film that was reviewed on this site almost exactly a year ago, just after Bowie's untimely passing.

David Hemmings as Jerry Nelson
Among Stone's conquests are former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings who became a reasonably successful actress after her glamour model beginnings, especially in B movies - specifically hicksploitation (love that word) such as GATOR BAIT [1974], MOONSHINE EXPRESS and THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE [both 1977].  Tragically, Jennings died in a car crash aged just 29.  Stone was also fortunate enough to bed two more Playmates in sisters Mary and Madeleine Collinson who were less successful in the movie business, being limited to a handful of dolly bird roles including the Hammer vampire flick TWINS OF EVIL [1972].

You don’t need me to tell you who Jack Haley Jr’s more famous father was so I won’t bother.  Suffice it to say that Jr carved out a reasonably successful Hollywood career as a producer, no doubt thanks to Dad’s contacts.  As a director of features, as far as I can tell he only made a couple, of which THE LOVE MACHINE was the second.  The DP was Charles Lang who was 69 when he shot this film and for most of the shoot probably wondered what the hell had happened to the movie business.  He won an Oscar in 1932 for A FAREWELL TO ARMS and when his Paramount contract ended he shot a lot of bid-budget productions for various studios, including some real belters like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], Marlon Brando’s one and only directorial effort ONE-EYED JACKS [1961]and the Cinerama feature HOW THE WEST WAS WON [1962].  One final technical note: the theme song is performed by Dionne Warwick who is inexplicably billed as Dionne Warwicke.