Day: February 25, 2011

Batman (1966)

1966

20th Century Fox

Directed by Leslie Martinson
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

Based on BATMAN created by Bob Kane

Most moviegoers today are mostly familiar with the Tim Burton film version of BATMAN in which The Caped Crusader was re-invented as the grim and somber guardian of a Gotham City that looked as if a lunatic designed it. That version was inspired by Frank Miller’s legendary ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ which in itself was inspired by the revolutionary reworking of the character back in the ‘70’s by Denny O’Neal and Neal Adams, who took the character from his campy ‘60’s incarnation and brought him more back in line with what Batman’s creator, Bob Kane had envisioned.

And more recently Christopher Nolan has done his version of Batman in two movies that have given us what is the most realistic film version of the character to date.  Nolan wanted to do a ‘real world’ Batman and I think he did a helluva job.  “The Dark Knight” was the first superhero movie to sell a billion dollars worth of tickets at the box office and rightly so.  The story, the characters, the performances and the direction were all so on point that “The Dark Knight” elevated the superhero movie to a new level.

However, it’s the ‘60’s version of BATMAN that has been playing on my DVD lately.  I recently watched it one Saturday afternoon.  Which for me is the best time to watch it, along with the largest bowl of potato chips I can find and a 3 liter bottle of Coca-Cola.  Thus armed I relived one of my childhood pleasures with a great deal of fondness and fun.

Y’see, I was there when Batman was originally shown on ABC and like every other kid (and more than a few adults) I went absolutely nuts over the show and watched it faithfully. It was shown two nights a week and the first episode always left off with a cliffhanger than forced you to come back the next night to see how Batman and his trusty sidekick, Robin The Boy Wonder would escape. Batman was always a hot topic at school the next day and the TV show was also my first exposure to Bruce Lee, who appeared as Kato in a legendary two-parter that guest-starred The Green Hornet. Kato and Robin had a memorable fight that ended in a draw when realistically, Kato would have handed The Boy Wonder his ass in two seconds flat. But I digress…we’re talking about the movie here….

BATMAN: THE MOVIE has The Dynamic Duo up against Underworld United, which is an alliance of four of their greatest enemies. The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman and The Riddler have all joined forces to once and for all destroy Batman and Robin and take over the world. They mean to achieve world conquest by kidnapping the members of The World Council and using an experimental dehydration machine to reduce them to dust and hold them until the nations of the world capitulate. Meanwhile, they spend their time thinking up increasingly bizarre traps to kill Batman and Robin and good googlymoogly do they spend a lot of time doing that.  There’s about five deathtraps they think up that take an amazing amount of time, money and sheer wasted energy when somebody could have just taken a gun and shot The Dynamic Duo dead.

Some of these deathtraps have become cult favorites among fans of the movie. Right at the beginning there’s a trained exploding shark that tries to eat Batman’s leg while he’s hanging from The Batcopter. Luckily he’s got a can of Bat Shark Repellent handy. Don’t even ask why he would have a can of Shark Repellent in a helicopter, okay? He’s Batman. And then there’s the big black bomb with the world’s longest fuse which Batman is trying desperately to get rid off but he keeps running into innocents in the way of him throwing it (A mother with a baby carriage, a group of nuns, a Salvation Army Band) which causes Batman to mutter the film’s most memorable line; “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!” But he does manage to get rid of it. How? Need you even ask? He’s Batman.

The fight scenes in the movie are extremely entertaining and downright exhilarating in their sheer destructiveness. Clearly inspired by Saturday morning serials, they’re huge set destroying melees in which not a stick of furniture is left standing. There’s no blood, nobody gets hurt and the actors (it’s pretty obvious that they’re not using stunt doubles) all are incredibly energetic and lively. Two of the best fights is one in which Bruce Wayne (!) has to fight his way out of the United Underworld hideout and at the end where Batman and Robin take on all the villains and their henchmen in a sea battle aboard The Penguin’s submarine. Batman and Robin fight something like two-dozen bad guys at one time and everybody is thrown and knocked into the water and climb back aboard the sub for more good-natured ass-kicking mayhem.

Okay, how about the performances, you ask? It’s pretty clear to me at least that everybody was having a good time making the movie, especially the actors playing the villains. When Tim Burton gave the character new life in 1989, every actor wanted to play a Batman villain.  And why not? The only fictional character with better bad guys is Dick Tracy.  And it was the same way back in the 60’s. Quite a lot of talented actors actively sought out roles as villains on Batman and four of the best are in this movie. Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero are just fine as The Penguin and The Joker. Romero especially had the kind of manic energy that The Joker needs. I only wish that Eartha Kitt had played Catwoman in the movie because she was the one Catwoman who really turned my crank. Lee Meriwether is fine in the role but hell; Eartha Kitt could make me turn to crime any day. And I’ve always loved Frank Gorshin as The Riddler. He’s the only villain with more than one outfit. When he’s in action, he wears a skin-tight green jumpsuit, but he also has this cool double-breasted green suit complete with a derby, spats and tastefully placed black question marks. Gorshin also has one disturbing scene aboard The Penguin’s submarine where he horrifyingly shows the sheer psychotic insanity of The Riddler, as well as a blood thirst for Batman’s death.  Wait for the scene where he screams at The Penguin to stop fooling around and kill Batman without delay. Make sure you look at the reactions of the other villains. They are clearly aware at that moment that this guy does not have all the spots on his dice. It’s a great moment in the movie and it shows that Frank Gorshin perfectly understood what made The Riddler tick and more importantly, he understood what made a Batman villain tick.

And what else can be said about Adam West and Burt Ward that hasn’t already been said? The two of them made the perfect Batman and Robin for this more innocent and light-hearted version of the characters and part of the fun of the movie is that West and Ward know they look ridiculous but they give it their all and even in the silliest of situations they play it with straight faces.

And to give Adam West his due, there’s a scene near the end when Batman discovers that his emotions have been played with by Catwoman and it’s perhaps the finest acting West has ever done as Batman since he has to communicate his thoughts and feeling with only his eyes and his lips and it’s an effective scene, indeed.

In recent years the movie has been derided by comic books fans who claim that the movie “ruined the character” without taking into account that the Batman of the comic book at that time was even wackier than the TV version.  At least the TV version never had Bat-Mite.  But it did have Yvonne Craig as Batgirl.  Yowsa.  And y’know, I really feel sorry for those who can’t get into this movie and enjoy it for what it is.   I really enjoy watching BATMAN: THE MOVIE.  It’s an innocent movie, designed for nothing else than to entertain and make you feel good. And maybe that’s its true charm: It’s simple, good-natured fun and if you stick that part of you that’s become oh so sophisticated and worldly in the closet and access your inner 10-year old, you might find yourself enjoying it. Catch it in the right mood on a Saturday afternoon.

105 minutes


The Whole Wide World

1996

Cineville, Inc./Sony Pictures

Directed by Dan Ireland

Screenplay by Michael Scott Myers

Based on “One Who Walked Alone” by Novalyne Price Ellis

Here’s a romance movie that I think is wonderful for a couple to watch but it’s not exactly the first movie that would come to mind when you and your sweetie hit the Netflix for something cuddle up with.  But you really should give THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD a try.  Let’s face it; aren’t you guys tired of seeing “Ghost” over and over and over?

In 1933, Novalyne Price (Renee Zellweger) is an independently minded young woman living in rural West Texas who dreams of going off to college and maybe becoming a teacher.  She really aspires to be a writer.  She has these huge diaries she writes her daily activities in and has been sending off stories to the confession/romance pulp magazines with little success.  She desperately longs for someone to talk to about her ideas and stories and one day while sitting on her porch drinking lemonade, a friend of her drives up and asks her would she like to walk over to his car and meet the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world: Robert E. Howard (Vincent D’Onofrio)

Robert E. Howard grew up and lived most of his painfully short life in Cross Plains, Texas and created what is probably the most famous pulp adventure character of all: Conan The Barbarian, the hero of short stories, novels, comic books and movies.  But Robert E. Howard created many more characters than that and wrote so prolifically that whole issues of ‘Weird Tales’ magazines were filled with his stories, written under half a dozen pen names.  Even today nobody is sure exactly how many names Robert E. Howard used or how many stories he wrote.  For me, when it comes to writing, Robert E. Howard has few equals when it comes to sheer storytelling power.  He wrote stories about lusty adventurers who spent their days hunting for treasure, fighting demons and roaming uncharted lands and spent their nights wenching, drinking and gambling.  There’s nothing but total testosterone in a Robert E. Howard story and it’s easy for me to understand why they were so popular during The Depression Era when so many men felt impotent and powerless.  After a hard day of trying your best to feed your family and keep a roof over their heads, for a man in the 30’s, picking up a copy of ‘Weird Tales’ and reading a Conan story where he kills a mad god and makes off with his priceless giant diamond is the equivalent to a modern day Joe Punchclock coming home from work and watching ‘24’ to cheer Jack Bauer kick terrorist scum ass and save The President from being blown up by a neutron bomb in his shower.

Novalyne is totally astonished at meeting someone who actually makes a living by writing and they begin a friendship that develops into a rocky romance.  Novalyne has a mind of her own and is ambitious with an independent spirit.  In that respect she’s somewhat more progressive than most of the other young ladies in the town but she’s never met anybody like Robert Howard who is socially inept and extremely close to his mother, who is in poor health.  When they go out on dates, Bob Howard prefers to take Novalyne on long drives where they can talk about the dreams and aspirations they have as writers.  As much as Novalyne grows to love Bob, she soon realizes that he’s not husband material.  Robert E. Howard is a wonderful man but he lives too much inside of his own head.  And while his incredible imaginative power and lust for life draws her to him, his emotional insensitivity and manic depressive moods drive her away.  They maintain their romantic relationship in a sort of on-and-off again basis but the real romance is between their imaginative minds and the love they both have of writing.

I really love THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD for number of reasons: first of all, while it’s not a straightforward biography of Robert E. Howard, we do get to see some very important moments in his life filtered through the eyes of Novalyne.  And there are some moments between Howard and his mother (Ann Wedgeworth) that are really touching.  You may remember Ann Wedgeworth as the sexpot neighbor on ‘Three’s Company’.  She does a really good job of acting here as Howard’s possessive mother who obviously loves her son a little too much.

The acting by Vincent D’Onofrio is first rate and convinced me that I was looking at Robert E. Howard in the scenes where he’s writing a Conan story and he’s speaking the dialog out loud.  There’s another scene where’s he’s walking down the main street of his home town, shadowboxing an imaginary enemy and mumbling descriptions of the fight that’s taking place as he works out a story in his head.  It’s made clear in the movie that Howard’s neighbors and friends think it’s pretty damn odd for a big grown strapping man such as himself to be making a living writing stories and talking to imaginary people in his head but D’Onofrio plays Howard with such an ‘I-Don’t-Give-A Damn-‘ charm he sells the performance.  Renee Zellweger is simply wonderful as Novalyne Price.  She understands Robert Howard.  She loves Robert Howard.  She thinks Robert Howard is the greatest writer in the whole wide world.  She just can’t allow herself to fall enough in love with him to marry him.  She’s smart enough to see that such a marriage would end in tragedy.   Novalyne Price went on to become a teacher and she wrote the book the movie THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD was based on after she grew angry at reading so many articles that she felt distorted the truth about what Robert E. Howard was like.

The relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is handled with a great deal of romanticism and sensitivity.  Robert continually amazes Novalyne with the places he takes her to where they gaze upon beautiful sunrises and sunsets.  These scenes also give D’Onofrio a chance to show off the stare he learned from Stanley Kubrick when we worked on “Full Metal Jacket” as Howard tells Novalyne about his stories and in the background we can faintly hear swords crashing together, the curses and yells of men fighting and the sounds of war which get louder and louder until Novalyne says something to snap him out of it.  The thing that really comes across in the movie is that in a lot of ways, both Howard and Novalyne were born out of place and out of time and even though they were lucky enough to meet, they still could not connect on a lot of levels.  It’s a really classically bittersweet love story.

It’s a great movie for lovers of the work of Robert E. Howard as I think it really gives fans of the man and his work a really good look at what his everyday life was like.  It also works as a movie about writers.  Movies about writers are really hard to do since most of the work takes place between their ears.  Fortunately, Robert E. Howard was as big as life as the heroes he wrote about and his life makes for an interesting movie.  I really enjoyed the movie just on that basis since I identify a lot with Robert E. Howard.  Like him, I have no illusions that my work is great art.  I just like telling a good story and Robert E. Howard was one of the best storytellers ever born.  Vincent D’Onofrio does an excellent job of showing Howard’s sheer exuberance and delight at just being able to tell a hell of a good story and I felt that deeply.

So should you see THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD?  Absolutely.  It’s a movie that works as a biography of one of the most influential and popular writers of all time.  It also works as a movie about writers and their internal lives and how they connect, interact and deal with others who are not in tune with those wavelengths writers are in tune with.  And it most definitely works as a romantic film as the relationship between Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price is touching, sad, funny, and poignant and I freely admit that the last scene of the movie is one that had my eyes watering.  Netflix THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD and watch it with a writer you love.

111 minutes

Rated PG

Westward The Women

1951

MGM

Directed by William Wellman

Produced by Dore Schary

Written by Charles Schneer

Based on a story by Frank Capra

Here’s a movie that even fans of movies in general and westerns in particular have told me they’ve never seen or heard of when I mention it and I can well understand why.  WESTWARD THE WOMEN is by no means a traditional western and every time I watch it I’m kinda amazed that it was made in 1951 since the story is told in such a raw, unglamourized fashion.   It features women and minorities prominently in the cast and they are treated not as stereotypes but as honest human beings.  Sex and death are handled with realistic brutality and this is a movie where the happy ending is truly deserved by the characters and not just a manufactured one to make the audience feel good.  The characters in this movie well and truly go through Hell and when they come out on the other side we feel as though we’ve made every step of the hideously horrible journey with them.

Roy Whitman (John McIntire) is an extraordinarily wealthy landowner who owns an entire California valley that he’s turned into a thriving community.  Now the only things his men need are wives. ‘Good women’ Whitman insists and not the floozies and harlots his men have become used to consorting with.  Whitman intends to go to Chicago, recruit 150 brides and bring them 2000 miles across country to his valley for his men.  To accomplish this he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) one of the best guides and wagon masters around.  Wyatt turns down the job at first and for good reason.  He’s a confirmed misogynist, doesn’t like anything about women, and doesn’t even want them to cook for him.  This guy’s not only a member of The He-Man Women Haters Club, he’s the president.  After Roy promises him a thousand dollar bonus, Buck agrees to take the job.

They go to Chicago and recruit the women for the journey.  Among them is Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) a dancehall girl who wants to go to California, leave her past behind and make a new life for herself.  Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson) is a woman of Amazonian proportions from a Massachusetts whaling town who has recently lost her husband and three sons in a storm at sea.  Maggie O’Malley (Lenore Lonergan) is a bespectacled schoolmarmish type who turns out to be a better shot, rider and roper than any man.  She soon finds herself in a rivalry with Jean Johnson (Marilyn Erskine) whose skills easily equal hers.  Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni) and her young son Tony (Guido Martufi) are also determined to go along despite the fact they speak not a word of English.

Right from the start the trip doesn’t go well.  The sexual tension between Buck’s crew and the women would be obvious to Stevie Wonder and there is a brutal rape that Buck handles in an equally brutal fashion by killing the man in a scene that you don’t find in most westerns.  The guy says to Buck, “Aren’t you going to give me a fair chance to draw?”  Buck doesn’t say a word, simply pulls his gun and shoots the dude dead before his hand even touches his gun.

The next morning Buck and Roy awaken to find that Buck’s crew has abandoned them along with about a dozen of the women.  The only other men besides them is Ito (Henry Nakumura),  the Japanese cook and Sid Cutler, one of Buck’s crew who has fallen in love with one of the women and wants to be the father of her unborn child.  Despite Roy’s misgivings, Buck insists that he can get the women through to California and he’ll do so if he has to turn them into skin, bone and muscle.  “They’re going to hate your guts,” Ito warns Buck who answers back without missing a beat, “I hope they do.”  And the rest of the movie is a grueling marathon of suffering and pain as we watch these women encounter Indian attacks, deadly flash floods, starvation, hailstorms, deserts, and that’s just the easy stuff as they make their way across an America that back those days was really savage,wild and hostile.  Death could come without warning and frequently did.

There are a lot of things in WESTWARD THE WOMEN that makes it different from your average western.  First off, the cast is mostly women but they’re not all your average glamorous Hollywood starlets.  Except for Denise Darcel who is exceptionally gorgeous the other women are remarkably realistic looking.  Some are very pretty.  Some are just pretty.  Some are okay looking. Some are thin.  Some are fat.  Some are ugly.  Some look like something you’d buy in a live bait store.  But all of them have their share of screen time.  We’re not just looking at Denise Darcel all the time.  And even when we are we grow aware of some disturbing things about her character Fifi Danon.   Y’see, she falls in love with Buck and it seems that she spends most of her time deliberately pissing him off so that he can whomp on her.  Their whole relationship seems based on their mutual love of violence.   There’s a disturbing scene where Buck lashes her with a horsewhip as well as smacking her around with the back of his hand a couple of times.  “Is that what you wanted?”  Buck asks.  Fifi looks up at Buck, wipes the blood drooling from the corner of her lip and there’s obvious sexual satisfaction in her voice and eyes as she answers, “Yes.  I’m okay now.”

Equally surprising is Buck’s relationship with Ito, the Japanese who signs on as a cook but we never see him cook a single meal in the entire movie.  In fact, after the rest of the men leave, Buck finds himself relying more and more on Ito for friendship and counsel.  Ito isn’t played as an offensive coolie type spouting pidgin English.  For much of the movie he’s riding side by side with Buck and there are scenes where he and Buck argue as equals about how to handle the women and how they’re going to finish this insane journey.  They bond one rainy night over a jug of rum they’ve dug up out of a grave. They bicker and quarrel.  They make up. They watch each other’s backs.  And when and if you watch this movie notice how every suggestion Ito gives Buck, he takes and acts upon.

The performances are first rate starting with Robert Taylor and going all the way down to the pooch playing Tony Maroni’s dog.  I’ve never been a big Robert Taylor fan but I like him a helluva lot in this movie.  His character of Buck Taylor may not go from being a misogynist to a pro-feminist which I would have found highly unrealistic but by the end of the movie he has come to an understanding and respect of women he didn’t have before.  Hope Emerson is a standout as Patience who refers to everything in nautical/whaling terms and the relationship between her, Buck and the other women is paticularly interesting.  Henry Nakumura is wonderful as Ito.  I really liked the scenes he has with Buck and what I like even more is there never any mention made of Ito’s race outside of when he and Buck first meet and after that, we never hear anybody refer to Ito being Japanese and in fact, there’s quite of bit of Japanese, French (Fifi Danon is French) and Italian spoken with no subtitles which isn’t as much of distraction as you might think and indeed, is quite powerful in one scene where Mrs. Maroni breaks up a fight between two women and chastises them in Italian.  Nobody understands a word she’s saying but everybody knows exactly what she means.

So should you see WESTWARD THE WOMEN?  I would certainly recommend that you do.  It’s a remarkably well-made movie that has a realistic feel and tone to it.  The filmmakers really tried to show how hard and difficult it was for people to get across the country back in the days of The Old West.  It was tough enough for whole families but for a bunch of women by themselves…well…lemme put it this way: there’s nothing in this movie that says it was based on a true story but it should have been because WESTWARD THE WOMEN is filled with enough heart and truth in it’s story to have been real.  And it probably was.  It’s a movie that you oughta put on your Netflix list.  Or if your cable/satellite provider carries Turner Classic Movies wait for it to show up there.

118 minutes

Knight And Day

2010

20th Century Fox

Directed by James Mangold

Produced by Kathy Conrad and Steve Pink

Written by Patrick O’Neill

Is America’s great love affair with Tom Cruise over?  If you look at the numbers then you might be inclined to say ‘yes’.  KNIGHT AND DAY took in nowhere near as much as a Tom Cruise starring movie is supposed to make.  And especially when he’s teamed with Cameron Diaz who has that wonderful grin that somehow manages to be both gorgeous and goofy at the same time.  And both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz know how to play comedy and action well so what happened with this movie?

Was it because it hit the theaters at around the same time as “Killers” starring Ashton Kutcher and Catherine Heigl which was a movie that in the trailers looked extraordinarily similar to KNIGHT AND DAY?  Or is that the audience who grew up with Tom Cruise in the 80’s and 90’s have moved on and just don’t want to see him on screen anymore?

June Havens (Cameron Diaz) is trying to get back home to Boston in time to attend her sister’s wedding.  And she keeps bumping into this cute guy with a really engaging grin who introduces himself as Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) who hints that maybe she really shouldn’t get on the same flight with him.  But she’s got a pesky dress fitting she can’t miss and so she gets on the plane.

It never occurs to June to wonder why a flight she was told was overbooked not more than twenty minutes ago is now almost empty except for herself, Roy, the flight crew and half a dozen men who look as if they are not casual travelers.

It isn’t long before the men and the flight crew are revealed to be assassins after Roy.  In between killing them all and steering the plane to a crash landing, Roy explains that they were sent by his ex-partner Fitz (Peter Saarsgard) who has gone rogue.  Fitz is after The Zephyr, a perpetual energy battery.  Roy has The Zephyr and he’s trying to rescue Simon Feck (Royal Dano) the eccentric genius who created/invented The Zephyr.   The situation is complicated because Fitz has convinced his boss (Viola Davis) that it is Roy who’s the rogue and so Roy is on the run from both the bad guys and the good guys.

Roy gets June to Boston and she tries to resume her life but that’s impossible as Roy re-enters her life in spectacularly explosive fashion, rescuing her from CIA hit squads as well as hit men working for the world’s most dangerous arms dealer, Antonio Quintana (Jordi Molla).  And the two of them are off on a world-wide chase to save Simon, keep The Zephyr out of Fitz’s hands and clear Roy’s name.

I really wasn’t all that hot to see KNIGHT AND DAY in the theaters.  Not because I dislike Tom Cruise, who I think is actually a pretty good actor but it looked like just another summer action flick with heaping helpings of comedy and romance thrown into the mix.  And that is precisely what it is.  There’s nothing deep or innovative or even exceptional about KNIGHT AND DAY.  I suspect that it got made simply because Cruise and Diaz wanted to work together and Cruise wanted to make a light action movie after the heavy drama of “Valkyrie”.

Tom Cruise doesn’t even try to stretch his acting muscles in this one.  He falls back on his tried and true standards: smiles and charm.  And really, there’s nothing more he needs in a movie or in a role like this.  Cameron Diaz gets to do a little bit more with her character development during the course of the movie in a satisfying manner.  Their scenes together are full of cuteness and fun.  Even when they’re being shot at by a dozen guys with machine guns they manage to say cute fun things.  It’s that kind of movie.  There’s a nice little mysterious subplot involving an elderly couple Roy is keeping tabs on via a hand held device and the supporting actors go about their business competently and with skill.

If there was any major reason I wanted to watch this movie it’s because of the director, James Mangold who directed three of my favorite movies: “Copland” which he also wrote and is for my money the movie that Sylvester Stallone turned in an Academy Award worthy performance.  He also directed the criminally ignored “Identity” starring John Cusack.  And “3:10 To Yuma” with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale

As with “3:10 To Yuma” and in KNIGHT AND DAY he demonstrates that he’s a terrific action director.  I’d love to see him tackle a James Bond film someday. He knows how to keep the story moving so that we know who’s doing what and why.  And he understands that in the slam bang fight scenes it’s important that the audience be able to see who’s hitting who.  No shaky cam here.  There’s a number of impressive shootouts and chases including one that takes place during The Running of The Bulls in Pamplona that I really enjoyed.

So should you see KNIGHT AND DAY?  It’s by no means at all a Must See Movie unless you’re a confirmed Tom Cruise or Cameron Diaz fan.  In which case you’ll probably seen it already.  Let me put it this way: I get emails from people all the time telling me I’m too hard on movies.  They say that they just want to turn off their brains and be entertained.  Well, here’s a movie that’s perfectly made for that purpose.  And it happened to catch me on a night when that’s all I wanted.  Your mileage may vary.

110 minutes

PG-13

The Wrath of God

1972
MGM

Produced by William S. Gilmore
Directed by Ralph Nelson
Screenplay by Ralph Nelson and James Graham
Based on a novel by James Graham

Back in the 60’s and 70’s there was a sub-genre of the western that had these elements: a group of American outlaws/mercenaries/rogues would find themselves in Mexico or South America at the turn of the century and get involved in what amounted to a suicide mission that circumstances forced them to accept. There’s usually a huge amount of money waiting for them at the end of the mission but during the course of the adventure the outlaws would find their long buried sense of justice and honor awakened and they would abandon the money to take up the cause of the downtrodden and oppressed peasantry. This is pretty much the plot of movies such as “The Wild Bunch” “The Professionals” “Duck, You Sucker” and “Vera Cruz” but I’ve never seen this plot worked in such a goofy and flat out off the wall manner as we see in THE WRATH OF GOD.

Emmett Keogh (Ken Hutchinson) is a wildass Irishman stuck in South America during the 1920’s. He’s blackmailed into driving a truck north by Jennings (Victor Buono) who tells him it’s a load of whiskey that will fetch a helluva price in the United States that is suffering under Prohibition. Since Jennings was the guy who arraigned for his passport to be stolen, Emmett has no choice to agree. Along the way he meets Father Oliver Van Horn (Robert Mitchum) who is one of the strangest priests that Emmett has ever met since Father Van Horn drinks liquor like it’s lemonade, swears like a Kansas City pimp and totes a huge black valise carrying a Thompson sub-machine gun. It’s a weapon that Father Van Horn knows as well as a monkey knows his coconuts which he demonstrates when Emmett and Father Van Horn have to rescue an Indian girl named Chela (Paula Pritchett) from being gang raped by the soldiers of Colonel Santilla (John Colicos) The two men are forced to go on the run with the girl in tow but they’re caught by Colonel Santilla’s troops and Emmett discovers that the truck actually carries guns meant for the rebels. Jennings has also been captured by Santilla and the three men are made an offer they can’t refuse: in return for their lives they have to agree to kill De La Plata (Frank Langella) a local rebel warlord who is causing Santilla a great deal of trouble.

Posing as mining engineers, Jennings and Emmett infiltrate De La Plata’s fortress-like hacienda while Van Horn takes up residence in the village church, which has been desecrated. It turns out that De Le Plata hates priests and personally killed the last one himself. Del La Plata’s mother (Rita Hayworth) begs her son not to kill this priest and De La Plata agrees not to since Van Horn saves his mother’s life when the local mine caves in. You see, the mine is filled with gold and De La Plata has terrorized the villagers into digging it out for him. But the mine is horribly unsafe and he needs the expertise of mining engineers to get it out. Of course, the three outlaws have to kill De La Plata before he figures out that Jennings and Emmett know as much about mining as I do about Chinese arithmetic. The situation is complicated by Emmett’s relationship with Chela who has fallen in love with him and Van Horn’s increasing desire to live up to the trust the villagers have in him as a priest. And while the outlaws have no loyalty to Santilla, they also see that living under De La Plata’s rule isn’t any day at the beach either. So they make a decision. And that’s when the story really takes off as Father Van Horn begins to conscript the villagers to stand up for themselves against De La Plata, Chela marries Emmett and Jennings makes plans to break outta Dodge and save his own ass.

You see? I told you it was goofy. What makes THE WRATH OF GOD so much fun to watch is that you never know where this damn movie is going to take you or what’s going to happen next. There’s a plot twist every five minutes and just when you think you know what’s going to happen, it doesn’t. There are a lot of really funny one-liners thrown back and forth between the three leading men and from the amount of humor in the story you might think halfway through it that it’s a spoof of the genre. I mean, this is a movie that has Victor Buono as an action hero, for cryin’ out loud. We’re talking about a guy who’s best known role was probably as the King Tut villain on the “Batman” 1960’s TV show. In this movie he has a great scene where he drives a car like a battering ram into the barricaded gates of De La Plata’s fortress while firing a Thompson sub-machine and then he jumps out to take on the chief henchman with his sword cane. And he’s totally convincing during his fight scenes of which he has several. And he has a bunch of great one liners, such as “We’re going to get along famously” which is used in this movie the same way “I have a bad feeling about this” was used in “Star Wars”

I’ve never seen Ken Hutchinson in a movie before and have no idea who he is but he’s immensely likeable as the wily Emmett who seems to tumble in and out of adventures as easily as you or I eat fried chicken. A lot of the humor in the movie comes from him as he’s constantly thrown into situations where he’s clearly way in over his head but he manages to come through with luck and sheer dogged determination that even Dirk Pitt might admire. And as for Robert Mitchum…well, he’s flat out terrific in this. For much of the movie we’re never sure what the deal with Father Van Horn is.  Not only does he carry an arsenal of machine guns and grenades in that big black valise of his but he also has $50,000 dollars that he hints he got by robbing banks. He has a great scene where he tells the villagers that he’s going to hold an all night service in the church where he performs weddings, baptizes babies and hears confessions where it made clear that he knows the rituals of The Catholic Church inside and out but he also indulges in decidedly un-priestly activities like sleeping with whores, drinking whiskey like water and cussing like crazy. He also carries a Bible that has a concealed gun inside and his cross hides a six-inch blade. Nobody in the movie really knows if this guy is actually one really badass priest or a really eccentric badass who likes to pretend he’s a priest until he spills the beans near the end of the movie.

Robert Mitchum is one of those old type movie stars I love because he looks like a man who actually looks like he’s tough enough to kick your ass with just a look, unlike a lot of the current crop of movie stars who are just too damn pretty to look like they’re as tough as the characters they’re portraying on screen. Robert Mitchum comes from the crop of actors I like to call ‘Old School Tough’. I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Steve McQueen. You know what I’m talking about. Whenever he’s on screen in this movie you just can’t take your eyes off him, as you want to know just like the other characters what the real deal with him is.

There are a lot of great action sequences in this movie, especially when the three outlaws finally take on De La Plata’s army in a ferocious shootout in front of the church and the final showdown at the fortress. In between we’ve got a whole series of double-crosses, fistfights, staredowns and showdowns that will make your head giddy. Trust me, this isn’t a boring movie. In fact, despite having been made back in 1972, THE WRATH OF GOD seemed to me a lot more of how current action/adventure are made with it’s healthy mix of violent action, comedy and eccentric characters which is why I think it makes enjoyable watching today.

So should you see THE WRATH OF GOD? Hell yes. If you’re a big Robert Mitchum fan it’s worth seeing just for him alone as obviously he’s having a great time with his role and the material. Victor Buono and Ken Hutchinson also turn in great performances as well. Frank Langella has a wonderful time with his role as a bad guy and his scene in the church where he confronts Robert Mitchum and tells him why he hates priests and God is an example of just plain good solid acting from both of them that goes a long way to establishing both of their characters and sets up the conflict between them nicely. THE WRATH OF GOD works as a really good cinematic pulp adventure that should be enjoyed for what it is: a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon with the snacks and beverages of your choice. If you get Turner Classic Movies on your satellite/cable provider you can wait for it to show up there but if you’re a dedicated pulp or Robert Mitchum fan, spring for the rental fee and give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I know I wasn’t.

Rated: PG
111 Minutes

Mr. Majestyk

1974

MGM/United Artists

Produced by Walter Mirisch

Directed by Richard Fleischer

Written by Elmore Leonard

I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I say that Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors of the group that I call “Old Time Tough”.  I’m talking about guys like Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Ernest Borgnine, Jim Brown, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum, Woody Strode, William Holden, Clint Eastwood, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery…you know what I’m talking about.  These are guys tough enough to walk through Hell with sticks of TNT in their hip pockets yet cool enough that the dynamite wouldn’t dare blow up on them.  Not like the current crop of pretty boy actors.  I’m sorry, but no matter how you try, you can’t convince me that half of today’s male movie actors can beat up on anybody over the age of nine, let alone the dozens of guys they take on in a movie.

Now Charles Bronson…here’s a guy who actually looks like he can pound the ever-lovin’ piss outta you in a New York minute.  He’s got a face that’s been lived in.  It shows age and experience.  He’s got a voice that sounds like he’s been gargling with whiskey and cigarette butts since puberty.  Charles Bronson radiates quiet menace.  He very rarely raises his voice on screen.  If he’s going to kick your sorry ass he just goes ahead and does it.  Chances are you’ve done something to deserve it.  And in MR. MAJESTYK the bad guys certainly do deserve it.  After all, Bronson goes through most of the movie just trying to mind his business.  But circumstances have other plans for him.

Vince Majestyk (Charles Bronson) is a Colorado watermelon farmer.  After struggling along for a few years he stands to make a massive profit from this year’s crop of melons.  He’s got 160 acres of melons that need picking and by a lucky chance meets with the feisty migrant worker Nancy Chavez (Linda Cristal) who isn’t related to that other Chavez but she has been involved in unionizing migrant workers.

Majestyk isn’t interested in her politics but if she can get a crew to pick his melons he’ll gladly pay them the fair wages she asks for.  However, Majestyk has to run off the small time strong-arm man Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) who is trying to force Majestyk to hire his crew of melon pickers that are nothing more than a bunch of Skid Row drunks.  The drunks don’t know how to pick melons and Majestyk knows they’ll ruin one melon for every three they pick.  So what does Majestyk do?  Well, since this is a Charles Bronson movie, he kicks Bobby’s ass and sends his crew packing.  You expected something different, maybe?

Bobby swears out an assault warrant against Majestyk who is promptly jailed by the sardonic Lt. McAllen (Frank Maxwell) who is immune to Majestyk’s pleas that he be allowed two or three days to get his melon crop in.  While in jail, Majestyk gets on the bad side of Mafia hit man Frank Renda (Al Lettieri) Renda’s boys try to break Renda out of jail during a wild shootout that goes horribly wrong and Majestyk sees a chance.  He makes off with Renda and tries to negotiate with Lt. McAllen: drop the charges against me and let me go back to picking melons and I’ll give you Renda.  However, with the help of his girlfriend Wiley (Lee Purcell) Renda escapes and vows vengeance against Majestyk.  After hooking up with Bobby Kopas, Renda scares off Majestyk’s migrant workers, breaks the legs of Majestyk’s best friend Larry (Alejandro Rey) and worst of all, machine guns Majestyk’s melon crop.

Well, he shouldn’t have done that.

You see, Majestyk is a decorated Vietnam veteran who earned a Silver Star and who was also one of the best U.S. Army Ranger instructors and he certainly hasn’t forgotten any of his skills.  He just hasn’t had a chance to use them for a while…

I’m a big fan of 70’s action movies like MR. MAJESTYK because while they lack the pyrotechnical whiz bang of action movies nowadays they have a gritty, down-to-earth look that gives such a realistic feel to the story that you really get sucked into what the story and characters are about and you’re not just waiting for the next big action sequence.  There’s really not anything in MR. MAJESTYK that is outside the realm of possibility.  I attribute that to the terrific screenplay by Elmore Leonard, who may just be the finest crime writer of the late 20th Century.  The dialog is wonderful to listen to but if you know anything about Elmore Leonard that shouldn’t be a surprise.  Leonard writes dialog where people talk to each other and not at each other.

The performances are great.  Charles Bronson is quietly capable as the enigmatic Vince Majestyk.  He’s just trying to get his melon crop in but all this other stuff keeps getting in the way.  Early on in the movie when he has a run in with some thugs and effortlessly takes away a shotgun from one of them, he says: “You’re in the wrong business” we believe him.  We also believe that Frank Renda doesn’t stand a chance against this man who he calls ‘The Melon Picker’ once we see what Majestyk is capable of when he finally gets sufficiently pissed off.  Al Lettieri obviously has a marvelous time playing Frank Renda.  His name might not be familiar to you but back in the 70’s if there was a crime/Mafia movie then Al Lettieri was in it.  His most famous roles were in the Sam Peckinpah version of “The Getaway” and he played Sollozzo, the only guy with the cojones to order a hit on Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” He was a guy who actually hung around and partied with Real Life criminals and mob guys.  It was that experience that he brought to the screen in the many roles he played, usually as a mob guy.

Linda Cristal is very good here as Nancy Chavez who eventually becomes Majestyk’s girlfriend.  They had a scene in a bar that is so refreshingly honest about how people actually decide to go to bed that I felt like cheering.  Sometimes it’s not all heart-shaped boxes of flowers and serenades under the balcony.  Sometimes people have a couple of drinks in a bar and say: “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we…”  And I can’t close out this review without mentioning Mr. Majestyk’s yellow Ford pickup truck that does such remarkable stunts in the final chase scene that it should be a member of The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures.

So should you see MR. MAJESTYK?  Totally.  If you’re a fan of Charles Bronson, of Elmore Leonard, of tight well-plotted, well-written crime thrillers then this is a movie that you’re going to love.  And in terms of acting, you won’t be disappointed.  MR. MAJESTYK is one of Charles Bronson’s best movies and one well worth seeing.  If you have Turner Classic Movies you can wait for it to show up there.  But if you’re subscribed to Netflix, put it on your list next time you’re looking for a satisfying action flick.  You’ll like it.  Trust me.

103 minutes

Rated: PG