Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Harry In Your Pocket (1973)

One of the most unusual and unjustly forgotten crime films of the 1970s, Harry In Your Pocket is a pickpocket procedural and the only feature film directed by Bruce Geller, one of the creators behind Mission: Impossible and Mannix.

The film begins with a meet-cute between thief Michael Sarrazin and his victim, Trish Van Devere. After she realizes he stole her watch, the two of them quickly reconcile and team up to become partners in crime, which leads them to pickpocket ringleader James Coburn who hires the young couple to be part of his team with Walter Pidgeon. What follows is essentially a how-to guide of their multi-person schemes, from the distraction to the pick to the pass.

Instead of grand scale crimes like those detailed in Rififi and Plunder Road that are inherently epic and cinematic in their scope, Harry In Your Pocket has no spectacle to exploit. A finger heist film, its central fascination is never meant to be seen in the first place. The film smartly builds suspense by focusing on the coordination of the team and the interplay of its agents.

Harry In Your Pocket is also a short-con narrative. Unlike most heist films which focus on do-or-die long cons with a big payoff, there's nothing all that glamorous or romantic about swiping wallets and watches. While they are seemingly living a life of luxury in fancy hotels and nice clothes, it is all part of their act. The sad reality of the short-con is that they're stuck in a rut, and there's no big payday at the end of their journey.

Coburn, as always, is top-notch. His effortless charm is equally at home in westerns, war pictures, spy spoofs, crime stories, comedies, and just about any other period or contemporary story one can think of. The more I watch him, the more he rivals Steve McQueen for the title of "the King of Cool." No offense to McQueen, of course, but Coburn has a coolness all his own, a combination of lanky grace, silver-haired style, and inimitable voice that combines a western drawl with fast-talking sophistication. Truly one of a kind.

The film is now available in a gorgeous blu from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Bad Man's River (1971)

If you've seen Horror Express (that amazing Trans-Siberian bigfoot-alien-zombie train ride from Hammer studios) you'll have some idea of the manic genre shape-shifting eccentricity that director Eugenio Martin brings to the western in Bad Man's River. I had seen a crummy, badly cropped, and faded budget label release of this movie a few years ago, and it was an incoherent, boring mess. Thankfully, Kino Lorber Studio Classics has released a pristine Blu Ray that restores the pictorial beauty and visual wit of Martin's direction, which allows viewers to enjoy a fuller understanding of just how marvelously weird Bad Man's River truly is.

Set during the Mexican Revolution, Bad Man's River begins with Lee Van Cleef and his gang successfully robbing a bank. While celebrating on a train, Lee meets Gina Lollobrigida, falls in love, marries her in a whirlwind courtship, and is promptly robbed and institutionalized by his new bride. After being released, Lee takes up with his old gang, and is contacted by his now-bigamous wife who hires Lee to destroy the Mexican army's supply of weapons as part of a ruse to get them to buy more arms from her new husband, James Mason. Lee takes the job, but soon finds that Gina is just as crafty and duplicitous as before.

Much like Horror Express, Martin veers the film deftly between different moods, embracing both the savage and slapstick extremes of the Spaghetti western genre. Some critics have said the joke-y music feels out of place, I would disagree and say that it rightful situates the film's lighthearted mood, folkloric narrative, and verse-chorus-like structure that keeps coming back to Gina and her double-crossing beauty.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Savage Dawn (1985)

Savage Dawn is a teched-up cousin to those AIP biker movies like The Savage Seven. Lance Henricksen is a Vietnam vet visiting his wartime buddy George Kennedy, who may be retired and wheelchair-bound but still considers himself the best weapons manufacturer alive. A local bar's yearly brawl to discover the toughest man in town draws a biker gang who quickly dominates the fight and then proceeds to terrorize the whole town. Henricksen is seemingly the only man capable of fighting back, but having seen too much violence he refuses to get involved. But as the gang begins terrorizing his friends, he is pushed too far, and he and Kennedy begin plotting their revenge. Savage Dawn takes a B-western invasion scenario and injects it with straight-to-video eccentricity, over-the-top action, one-liners, 80s-fashion, and a synth rock 'n roll soundtrack. What keeps the film from complete stylistic decadence is its terrific fight choreography (that isn't obliterated by close-ups and fast editing like it would today) and the great desert location photography, as well as its ensemble cast that includes Karen Black and the Fifth Chapter motorcycle club.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Barquero (1970)

Amidst a genre built on familiar archetypes and recycled tropes, Barquero is all the more striking for its originality and unfamiliarity. With its Mexican border setting and lead actors Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates, Barquero would seem to follow in the footsteps of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, however director Gordon Douglas takes us on a very different journey with this film. Van Cleef plays a ferryman along the Rio Grande. When he gets wind that a gang of bandits lead by Oates are on their way, Van Cleef rounds up the townsfolk and heads across the river to prevent the bandits from transporting their guns.

Unlike the journey plots of so many westerns that take advantage of the epic expanses of the landscape, Barquero is structured around the absence of movement. Inaction, rather than action, is the catalytic thrust of the plot. The film is like an extended showdown at high noon, with Van Cleef and Oates facing off against each other across the river, exchanging curses and bullets. They each have hostages, they each have guns, and they each have what the other wants: Oates has the town, and Van Cleef has the barge, and neither man is willing to concede.

Co-written by George Schenck and William Marks, Barquero boasts a clever script that explores one of the most crucial but overlooked aspects of the west: transportation. What do you do when fording the river is not an option, and when there isn't a ferry to get you and your belongings across? It's a simple concept, but Schenck and Marks make the most of it, constructing a steadily intensifying situation that makes for high energy and action, despite the inherently static nature of the plot. Director Gordon Douglas earlier made the underrated Stagecoach remake that infused Ford's classic with updated '60s countercultural spirit, and here he again offers a fresh take on the western genre.

The recently released Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu Ray boasts a mostly strong image and bold colors. The only weak areas are the day-for-night sequences which can sometimes be quite grainy. Overall, Barquero is great, an innovative, intelligent, and high-action western. It's great to finally have this in a beautiful, anamorphic widescreen edition. This deserves to be on the list of essential 70s American western films.


Available on Blu Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

"The Revengers" (1972)

The 60s and 70s was a zeitgeist for ensemble action movies. The Guns of Navarone, The Professionals, The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and many others. Group-oriented stories like these had precursors in films like Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but the 60s and 70s saw a reassurance for these sort of multiple character-driven action narratives, each featuring a seemingly insurmountable task carried out by an all-star cast. The Revengers (1972), just released in a gorgeous Blu Ray from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, seems to follow in this tradition, and for the first half hour it certainly does, however the film has several twists that take the story in unexpected and unusual directions.

The film begins on the secluded farm of William Holden, retired military officer and Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War. West Point officials arrive to recruit his son. Before the boy leaves, however, marauders arrive and massacre Holden's entire family. The sole survivor, Holden swears to track down the murderers and get revenge. Instead of assembling an army of upstanding men like The Magnificent Seven, Holden goes to a nearby prison and hires six of the nastiest, meanest, and vilest criminals for cheap labor (including Woody Strode and Ernest Borgnine). Neither the criminals nor the warden have any clue what the real purpose is. Once Holden arms his men and tells them the plan, however, the criminals show their true colors by turning their guns on him and abandoning the mission before it has even started.

That's only the first twist, and many of others ensue, with plenty of impressively orchestrated action sequences and collaborative destruction, as befits the teamwork narrative. What is most impressive to me, however, are the unexpected and unusual tonal shifts, such as a lengthy passage when a wounded Holden recovers at the home of an Irish nurse (Susan Hayward, in her final big-screen role). Coming after nearly an hour of straight action, with the widescreen frame filled with seven (or more) characters and long-shots and close-ups that highlight the micro- and macro-majestic destruction, director Daniel Mann slows things down for a lovely, subdued sequence between Holden and Hayward. The muted tones, interior settings, and intimate frame shared by only two bodies offer a refreshing contrast to the bright and explosive images from earlier in the movie, and they also allow both Holden and the audience to question the necessity of such a violent plot. The title of the movie gives you Holden's motivation, but how valid is it, and what will it change?

Overall, The Revengers is a terrific and under-appreciated western that mixes post-Spaghetti brutality with sympathetic characters and a strong, moral conscience reminiscent of Hollywood's classical westerns.

Available on Blu Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"A Town Called Hell" (1971)

Kino Lorber's Studio Classics has a lot of westerns on their current release slate, but none has been more tantalizing to me than Robert Parrish's A Town Called Hell (aka A Town Called Bastard) (1971). Here's a movie that, unless you saw it in its first release or some mega rare repertory screening, you just couldn't see. That is, you couldn't see properly. Disgustingly butchered public domain dvds and streaming links abound, and they're responsible for killing the reputation of this movie. Most of the reviews up until now are dreadful, and I can't blame the critics, because the prints were unwatchable. My old DVD of A Town Called Hell was not only cropped from widescreen to the square-ish 1:33, but then re-cropped, with the tops and bottoms being cut off to make the already cropped 1:33 look like widescreen. The result was to render the already dull and fuzzy images totally incoherent. I watched the movie like that, but even with the aide of several online synopses, I couldn't make out the story.

Don't judge the movie before you've seen Kino Lorber's beautiful new Blu Ray or DVD, and don't even think about cutting corners for one of the cheapo versions, unless you want to compare to see just how bad the old copies were. And if you were unfortunate enough to watch one of those public domain discs, do yourself a favor and give this film another chance. If you've seen it on any other disc, then you've never seen it before.

A Town Called Hell is a dark, dreamlike western set in Mexico during the revolution. In the opening scenes, an army of rebels overtake a town, killing not only the Republican troops, but also everyone in a church, including the priest. Leading the barrage are two nameless warriors (recognizable as Robert Shaw and Martin Landau). Ten years later, the town is still in rebel hands, ruled by Don Carlos (Telly Savalas). The widow Alvira (Stella Stevens) arrives in town riding in a coffin, from which she rises to announce that she will pay a reward for the man who killed her husband. The culprit is a mysterious revolutionary named Aguila, and the only people who know his true identity are the town priest (Shaw), who has given up his guns for good, and a blind man (Fernando Rey) who once sheltered the outlaw. Meanwhile, The Colonel (Landau, having switched allegiances) arrives in town with more Republican troops, who are also looking for the notorious bandit.

Spectral dread hangs over A Town Called Hell, a spooky and morbid atmosphere reminiscent of High Plains Drifter and Django Kill ... If You Live, Shoot!. Rampant death and torture abound, and it's no wonder where the town got it's name from. The landscape is more like a graveyard than a habitable community, and everyone seems to be waiting around either to kill or die. Adding to the gothic mood is Stevens' wraith-like appearance. Cloaked all in black, she is like the reaper from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal: she has come to collect a body, and she will not leave until the dead man is in her possession.

In contrast to all the gunfire, much of the dialog is delivered in barely audible whispers, so the soundtrack alternates between deafening violence and eerily silence. And unlike the guitar-driven scores popularized by Ennio Morricone, composer Waldo de los Rios (who scored Euro cult horror classics The House That Screamed and Who Can Kill a Child?) has written a more eerie soundtrack with a sustained sense of unease and horror.

While the names in the cast are renowned, its director is someone who deserves to be better known. Robert Parrish is an important, if overlooked, figure in film history. As a child actor, he had bit parts in Murnau's Sunrise, Allan Dwan's The Iron Mask, Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, Frank Capra's Forbidden, and several John Ford films. His association with Ford developed into Parrish becoming an apprentice editor on some of Ford's most acclaimed films, including Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Long Voyage Home. Parrish who also served along Ford in WWII in the Navy's Field Photographic Branch, editing The Battle of Midway and December 7th. He also won an Oscar for cutting Body and Soul, and went on to direct the noir Cry Danger with Dick Powell, Fire Down Below and The Wonderful Country with Robert Mitchum, Saddle the Wind with Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes, and The Purple Plain with Gregory Peck, among many others.

A Town Called Hell is a weird western, that's for sure, but it's a one-of-a-kind movie with a great cast. I'll be re-watching this one.


Available on DVD and Blu Ray.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Roughneck" by Jim Thompson (1954)

One can't read Bad Boy, part one of Jim Thompson's personal odyssey, without reading its companion, Roughneck (Lion, 1954). Picking up the exact moment where the previous book ends, page one finds Thompson and his family fleeing from Capone's mob when their car breaks down. Now, they're stuck in Oklahoma City in a rundown Model T, en route to Nebraska, the closest thing to a Holy Land that they know, while being pursed by ripped-off racketeers who want their money. Thompson hits up an old family friend, someone who Thompson's father helped clear through Ellis Island and helped set up for business here in Oklahoma City. Of course the man remembers Mr. Thompson and would be happy to repay the gratitude. How happy? $5. Once again, they're screwed, and once again, Thompson and his family manage to scrape by and survive until the next problem arises.

Whereas Bad Boy was largely a collection of family anecdotes and early misadventures of young Jim, Roughneck is more of a solo-Thompson adventure. We see more of the locales and landscapes that will populate his novels (the sleazy hotel of A Swell-Looking Babe, the oilfields of South of Heaven), but we also see the evolution of journeyman Thompson to journalist Thompson as he gets his first jobs at newspapers and then goes to college (even these turn into farcical, slapstick escapades). He goes from factotum to philosopher, and from a lost soul drifting with the wind to one of the great chroniclers of the squalid side of the American dream. In a way, Thompson is a great complement to someone like Steinbeck. Both writers are revealing of the American landscape, its characters, and the jobs and lives they lead in order to survive.

But what's amazing is how this change in Thompson was so natural. It wasn't like he woke up one morning and decided to turn his life around and become a writer. On the contrary, somehow running booze and working on pipelines and writing the occasional story turned into going to college for agriculture (instead of writing) and even though he didn't have any money he had to work crazy night shifts to pay the bills and, well, you see where I'm going. It was all just part of this extraordinary life. Reading Roughneck, you see how the fabric of Thompson's fictional world comes straight out of his life.

Hell, it's amazing that Thompson even survived to tell the tale. But I'm sure glad he did. Roughneck (along with Bad Boy) is essential Thompson. His own life is one of his best stories.


Available from Mulholland Books.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

"Bad Boy" by Jim Thompson (1953)

Originally published by Lion in 1953, Bad Boy is an act of self-mythology, a brazen, breathtaking, and bonkers Bildungsroman that recounts Jim Thompson's formative years, from a misshapen baby who was pinched too often to a whiskey runner for Al Capone's mob. In between those two touchstones are twenty some-odd years of adventures and misadventures in the American mid-west during the first three decades of the twentieth century.

Written with the wondrous and lyrical wanderlust of an oral history, it is only somewhat chronologically structured, and Thompson will interrupt himself for tangents and asides, imbuing the narrative with this magnificent spontaneity. These are the types of stories one might hear sitting around a family table, recalling the good, the bad, and the ridiculous times of yesteryear. Of teenage Thompson being left in the care of his grandfather while the rest of the family is away, which turned into drinking hot toddies, catching movies, and spending the afternoons in burlesque clubs eating sandwiches. While this anecdote shows the seedy setting that might appear in any of his fictional novels, there's also a great deal of warmth and communion to the way Thompson talks about family, and it not only shows another side to his writing, but also illuminates more subtle shades of his novels. The psychosis and violence of his novels was shocking then and continues to be today, but there is so much more to his writing than that. His ability to render character sketches in such dynamic, colorful tones and with such economy is remarkable, and makes me think of O. Henry.

Another favorite anecdote is about a writer that Thompson's uncle said was his favorite.
"Scoopchisel, the greatest writer of all time. … I was so impressed with the works of Scoopchisel that even after Pop and the rest of us had reassembled and I was well advanced in grammar school, I quoted him. Which inevitably led, of course, to my inditing a pained and accusing letter to my Uncle Bob. He replied promptly. He would not advise me - he wrote - to accuse my teachers of ignorance, nor would he confess that Scoopchisel had never existed. He would only say that every man had to believe in something and that he liked to believe in Scoopchisel, and even though the latter had never lived he damned well should have." 
There are more great stories in this book than I can recount here (and to do so would be to spoil so many pleasures), but when you take a step back, several predominant themes become apparent. Family, migration, and money (or, frequently, the lack thereof), all of which lead to, what else, crime. The ups-and-downs of Thompson's father's career go from poor to rich and back again many times over, and include him being a lawman and then being run out of the state to him becoming a lawyer and a string of other jobs that had him running the gamut of success and failure. These stories are insightful illustrations of the successes and struggles of the American middle class in the first decades of the 1900s, from the latter days of westward expansion through the early days of the Great Depression. The careers of Thompson's father, and later himself, take the family all across the mid-west and through so many different occupations and social conditions. In this light, Bad Boy is more than just the personal story of Thompson, but a personalized story of a country undergoing drastic change.

And speaking of crime, many of the best passages of Bad Boy (and of its sequel, Roughneck) have to do with Thompson's time as a bellboy in a vice-ridden hotel. I could go into those, but then again, you could just read the book, and try to imagine yourself as a guest in a small, Midwestern hotel during prohibition, and seeing a teenage boy red-eyed from lack of sleeping, reeking slightly of whiskey, and slipping him a twenty and asking him if he could bring up a bottle of the good stuff. Yup, it's probably better that you do the reading and imagining for yourself. It's a hell of a lot more enjoyable that way.


Bad Boy is available from Mulholland Books.
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