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Gritty New York City 70s films hold a special place in my heart because my father took me to the theater to see them when I was very, maybe too, young. He had a great way of asking what movie you wanted to see, and then when you picked something age-appropriate like Herbie The Love Bug, he would just say, “No. We’re going to see this.” And off to The Seven Ups or The Laughing Policeman you went. I suspect he just went through the motions of giving you a choice hoping he could get a twofer, seeing a movie he wanted to see and having you actually hit upon the same thing.

If nothing good was out, we watched a lot of these pictures at his apartment, sharing a bowl of candy corn.

I was never very disappointed to have a Disney film vetoed by my Dad.  I was nine or ten years old and I was drinking in the likes of Serpico, Death Wish, and The French Connection, which introduced me to the hellscape of New York City, so different from my own suburban enclave. Throw in some other New York City pictures that offered more complicated themes, like Klute, and the Big Apple seemed even more foreign and forbidding.

The experience could be disorienting. After all, I was watching Jane Fonda fake an orgasm but didn’t know what a call girl was or what exactly she was faking. But it was such a rush and a privilege, something we shared that really wasn’t transferable to anybody else. I mean, I couldn’t really tell kids in my fifth grade class about Dog Day Afternoon.

For me, the best and most accessible of these pictures was The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I think my father agreed. From the beginning notes, a frenetic, jazzy David Shire score, the city translates musically as a haphazard mess of a place where anything can happen. In the space of 15 minutes, you’re introduced to four hijackers of, of all things, a New York City subway train, their hostages, and every sort of New York City bureaucrat, from the mayor all the way down to the weathered Transit Authority Inspector Garber (Walter Matthau). To a person, every politician, cop, administrator, dispatcher, and train driver is cynical, a little bit “Not my department” lazy, obnoxious, and yet, grudgingly heroic in their ability to work in such a fucked up place. They constantly deride, yell at, and ride each other, but there is a fundamental professionalism in their banter, and when they are put to the test by an exacting master criminal with a plan (Robert Shaw), there is something noble about their efforts. Unlike the feeble and mincing bureaucrats of Dirty Harry’s San Francisco, these folks are simply too harried and put-upon to bother with any kind of agenda, be it liberal, conservative, or something in between.  They’re just working stiffs doing the best they can and to a character, they are shockingly well fleshed out even with little dialogue. Add an entire subway car filled with all the denizens of New York City – the pimp, the prostitute, an old Jewish man, non-English speaking immigrants, a mother and her two bratty boys, early feminists, a drunk, a hippie – and the picture becomes a model in drawing characters both strongly and economically.

An example: Shaw has asked for $1 million to be assembled in 60 minutes. He tells Matthau that for every minute he is late with the dough, he’ll kill a hostage. You watch the entire city machinery lurch into action to meet the deadline, including two cops who are tasked with driving the money from the bank to the subway station. They are given a few lines as they wait for the payoff funds, and yet, I became so interested in them, when they crashed their police car trying to make time, I fretted about their fate even though the story couldn’t allow for any resolution.

And as a caper film, you’re not gonna get much better than this. I remember gripping my seat, but I can’t remember whether we were in the theater or at home on the couch. Joseph Sargent, a workmanlike director who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, keeps everything moving while the picture remains funny yet taut, and then dizzying, almost as if patterned on the runaway subway train that closes the film. When you get comfortable, he snaps you back to attention with shocking violence and the expressed terror of the hostages. 

Opening credits here, featuring Shire’s unforgettable, commanding soundtrack.   

Currently on Showtime.  And if you’re seeing Denzel Washington and John Travolta, you’re watching the godawful remake. Bail out. 

Pretty much terrible through and through. The best part of the film is the first 20 to 25 minutes, which focus on a macho friendship between professional contract killers Robert Duvall and James Caan. Caan is double-crossed, and then goes through an arduous rehabilitation after he is shot. After dogged sexual harassment of his nurse, he does garner a girlfriend/caretaker in the bargain, but soon, he is drawn back in by his corporate sponsor. Caan assembles a small team (Burt Young, Bo Hopkins) and takes on a contract to protect a would-be revolutionary (Mako) from an unknown Asian country. What follows is a blocky, ridiculous shoot ‘em up, marred by laughable cynical intrigue, schizophrenic tone, and mystical Eastern mumbo-jumbo.

Both Duvall and Caan were a few years off The Godfather, so perhaps the studio thought that would be enough, With Sam Peckinpah at the the helm, what could go wrong?

A lot. Peckinpah melds ninja warriors attacking men with guns, and ala’ The Wild Bunch, much of it is in slow motion. The result is a comic slaughter, one that seems only to be missing the Benny Hill soundtrack. At one point during one of these turkey shoots, Caan and Young are actually cracking up.

And as noted, there are Asians, so there is the obligatory honorable fight to the death with samurai swords.

The script is a mess, a mix of tough guy patter, platitudinous observations on “the Man” and the virtue of a cause, and verbal slapstick. Caan seems to be laughing through the entire endeavor, and it’s hard to blame him.

In the plus column, 70s San Francisco is a kick, and the final shootout is filmed in the Suisun Bay US Navy graveyard with hundreds of mothballed ships. The feel is spooky and the visual awe-inspiring.

The lure of Steve McQueen is a steely resolve that doesn’t need a lot of explanation.  McQueen is the Cooler King, driven by an unarticulated obsession with escape. Or Frank Bullitt, even-tempered yet resolute as he doggedly figures out a conspiracy while courting Jackie Bissett (who, of course, wants to know what’s ticking . . . . up there). The Sand Pebbles, Papillon, The Getaway, The Magnificent Seven, Nevada Smith . . . all pretty much the same guy, with some slight moderation on the irony-to-darkness meter. Always something hidden, a mix of detached bemusement, determination and code.

In The Cincinnati Kid, that’s who we are promised, but the film is so bare bones and uninvolving, it only succeeds in exhibiting how skeletal McQueen can actually be. 

He’s a hot shit stud poker player who gets his chance at the top man (Edward G. Robinson) and there is a little skullduggery afoot before and during their epic showdown on the felt.  Some of it is business (Rip Torn and Karl Malden vie for his loyalty), some of the heart (child-like Tuesday Weld offers love, voluptuous Ann Margret her vixen’s hips), and none of it is interesting.  The Weld-McQueen union is hollow, the Margret-McQueen coupling inexplicable (she oozes, McQueen snoozes), and the shenanigans between Torn and Malden are pedestrian.

Only Robinson, as an aging card player tiring of every young buck who wants to take him on, offers some shading and intellect.

This is a sleepy rip-off of The Hustler.             

I started watching Michael Mann’s Tokyo Vice on HBO Max, which is excellent, and then I noticed that his big screen directorial debut was on Amazon Prime for free (Mann also wrote the picture).

I remember Thief primarily because the bad guy was Robert Prosky, a then-legend in D.C. theater (I went to high school with two of his sons, both theater kids). As a seemingly civilized crime boss branching out into legitimate investment, Prosky does not disappoint. He’s a sharp mix of warmly urbane and brutal and is at his best when wooing the uber-independent professional thief Frank (James Caan) to join up with his outfit. Prosky offers Caan all the tools necessary for big heists – including the materials, targets and dental – all the while “respecting” Caan’s ability to opt out of the game at his whim.  Simultaneously, Caan is wooing diner hostess Tuesday Weld, dreaming of that last score and getting out.       

Mann’s stylish sequences make great use of a perpetually wet, gray and grimy 1980 Chicago, and the industrial score by Tangerine Dream (an edgier Vangelis, who just died) adds to the noir-ish moodiness.

Sure, it is a little dated. The slo-mo shootout at the end, in particular, does not travel well. But the heist scenes are exciting, and there is a real chemistry between Caan and the several-times-around-the block Weld (their momentous date over coffee, which becomes a lifelong bond, is credible, no mean feat). Caan is riveting as a distrustful loner frantically trying to wrap it all up and get free. He plays Frank at a slow simmer, a man for whom control is so seminal, it devours him.        

Willie Nelson has a very strong turn – one scene – as a desperate convict, and you can also spot Chicago regulars Dennis Farina and William Peterson in small roles (and Jim Belushi in a larger one).   

I regularly monitor the streaming services for late 60s and 70s flicks. I may have seen them on regular rotation growing up on the 4 o’clock movie. Or my father may have taken me to the theater on his semi-regular weekend visits. Some are solid pictures, enhanced by my own nostalgia. Some are complete and utter poop. Mr. Majestyk is in the latter camp.

Charles Bronson, who squinted through an inordinate amount of theses paychecks through the 70s (Telefon, Breakout, Love and Bullets), plays a Vietnam Vet who just wants to be left alone to chisel the hourly wage down for his immigrant work force and pick watermelons. Alas, local Colorado thugs who want the work for white bums (so they can take a portion of their wages) intercede, Bronson messes them up, and soon, he’s in jail, where he meets and elicits the ire of a hitman (The Godfather‘s own Virgil Solozzo, Al Lettieri, who overacts inversely proportional to Bronson’s napping). Leaden car chases, nonsensical shootouts and wooden dialogue (penned by Elmore Leonard, no less) ensue.

The picture is clearly influenced by Billy Jack, the independent film made a few years prior on a shoestring which racked up a surprisingly healthy box office. Billy Jack is also not very good, but at least it had some camp value and the virtue of originality.

Charles Bernstein’s score is an elongated intro for a Mannix or Banacek. Maybe a McCloud. Gruesome horn, spinet and wah wah guitar. I suppose it is fitting because there is not an episode of one of those shows that is as dumb and listless as this picture.

Though if machine-gunning watermelons is your thing, this one is for you.

From 'Basic Instinct' to 'Showgirls': The rise and fall of the erotic  thriller

We were sitting down last night to eat Chinese, ready to watch the finale of The Alienist on HBO Max, when this popped on.  As I looked at my kung pao, and then at my wife, none too proud of myself, I asked, “Can we keep watching this until we see Sharon Stone’s genitalia?”

She acquiesced.

Sadly, that scene had passed, but we did watch the rest of the picture.  A few thoughts:

1) This is a “pre-proliferation of-internet pornography” picture, and even without the glimpse of Stone’s privates, I was impressed by the ample nudity (a lot of Stone, her girlfriend, and tons of Michael Douglas butt) and the extended sex scenes.

2) The film has aspirations to Hitchcock, but it is weak and often, hilariously mannered, and it essentially phones in any real suspense, substituting beautiful, inconvenient San Francisco locales for people to meet.

3) It is also rife with tropes, like the drunken buddy cop partner (George Dzundza), the sex so good your back gets scratched by fingernails, the hard-bitten cop who doesn’t need pencil-pushing headshrinkers messing with gut street instincts, and various versions of, “You’re way over the line, mister!”

4) It tries for a Suspicion-like ending but fails, with unintended comic results (how many times can Sharon Stone have an orgasm and at its peak, throw her hands down towards Douglas as if she were going to stab him with an ice pick?)

5) Michael Douglas has to be the most successful dick of a leading man in history,  Granted, he got his Oscar as Gordon Gekko, a true villain, but by leading man, I mean someone who is supposed to engender a smidgeon of empathy.  Sure, you felt bad for him in Fatal Attraction, but not really bad, even though a woman boiled his pet rabbit, kidnapped his child and tried to murder his family. He’s always at least half a dick.

6) The film has innumerable lazy turns, but my favorite is how no one ever takes Douglas “off the case” (sure, he is suspended, but he’s really up in the investigation all the way to his naked butt), despite sleeping with the suspect; killing her girlfriend (and providing a wildly implausible lie about how that happened); sleeping with his psychological counselor who works for the police; and beating up a colleague who later that night is found with a bullet in his temple.

Yet, the one time he is sidelined by his partner (“hey man, you can’t come up there with me, you’re suspended”), Douglas agrees and the partner gets fileted.

Plus, apparently, Douglas has “history” – 5 shootings in 6 years, two of which were tourists “caught in the crossfire.”

That’s one helluva a police union.

Anyway, the movie is bad, guilty pleasure watchable, and, as noted, overly dependent on Sharon Stone’s vagina.

Amazon.com: The Sand Pebbles [DVD] [1966]: Movies & TV

They really don’t make these kinds of films anymore. The broad, historical sweeping epics which found fashion in the 80s were for the most part not very good and none had any of the leisurely quiet moments or ambiguity of this picture. They blared big budget bloat and were neither smart or interesting. If you don’t believe me, give Gandhi, The Last Emperor, A Passage to India, The Mission, or Out of Africa another whirl without getting heavy-lidded. And if you want to venture into the 90s, three words of warning: Oliver Stone’s Alexander.  Or, Braveheart, The Patriot, Gangs of New York, Rob Roy, all blood and volume and ghastly excess. Titanic, beautifully photographed, with a script written for the mind of a chipmunk. Dances with Wolves? Lush, dull and uninvolving.

The 2000s? They remade Ben Hur into Grand Theft Chariot.

There are outliers. The Last of the Mohicans is very good and Master and Commander stellar. Gladiator is fun, but the fights and the CGI are what you remember.  

That’s about it.

The decline of the historical saga makes sense. The universality of social media and technology supplanted the novelty of on-site location in foreign, exotic locales, and today,  perhaps the quickest way to shut down a pitch meeting would be to explain that your film opens in/with “China 1926” and is 3 hours long.

The story revolves around the American naval presence in China in the 1920s and the travails of one particular vessel, the San Pablo (think hard to an old history course and see if you can dredge up “gunboat diplomacy”). Steve McQueen is the quiet, unsophisticated engineer, a grit-under-your-fingernails loner who has a good heart. An impossibly young Candice Bergen is an American missionary schoolteacher who takes a liking to him. Their relationship is interrupted by her missionary father, who believes the  American presence is creating havoc and, naively, that they are immune to the brutalities of war, and McQueen’s captain (Richard Crenna), a by-the-book leader losing his grip on the men with a vainglorious streak that proves lethal. Then, there are the tensions amongst the crew (which includes Richard Attenborough, Simon Oakland and the just recently deceased Gavin MaCleod), as some settle on McQueen as their own bad juju Jonah.

The visuals are stunning, the drama authentic, even in the show-ier style of the time. There’s also great but subtle cynicism in the picture, which quietly indicts American imperialism and cultural bigotry while reinforcing its values, and it has a decided championing of the little guy, be he Chinese or American.

But what really struck me were the visuals and the leisurely pace.  To watch a movie on the big screen where the grandeur and beauty of a foreign land was a star equal to the actors and 3 hours at the movies was just ducky must have been quite something in 1966.

An aside; when I was was a kid, I’d come from grade school and religiously watch the 4 o’clock movie, which included this picture. To be precise, it included parts of this picture, because you had to fit it into 2 hours, with commercials.

The movie, directed by Robert Wise, was nominated for best picture, cementing McQueen as a star (he was nominated for best actor his one and only time here).

On Amazon Prime. Turn the phone off, order Chinese and give it a go.

the gambler james caan – FM For Music

Meditative and deliberative, Director Karel Reisz gives us entree’ into the world of Axel Freed (James Caan), college literature teacher by day and degenerate gambler by night. Though it may be too much of a throwback for some, writer James Toback paints an anguished and multi-faceted portrait of a moth perpetually drawn to flame, a man who has internalized his addiction as a statement of freedom, verve and iconoclasm. However, Caan seems to sense he is a fraud, and as the film progresses, he gets himself into the kind of trouble where his family and not even his sympathetic bookmaker (a young, manic Paul Sorvino) can help.  It is here where the heart of the picture beats.  You watch Caan agonize, humbled, and then terrified as the wise guys become menacing rather than an ornament to his cool. Soon, there is a dawning, if not the expected one.

Caan is unsympathetic yet engaging, and he is always a star. He’s the grandson of a furniture magnate, and his mother is a doctor, and when things get very bad financially, he always has them as a crutch, an out, making his consort with flashy thugs and the more dangerous element of 1970s New York City a bit of a conceit. No matter what he wagers, his philosophizing about risk and chance is just so much b.s. because he high wires with a net.

But his net are people of substance – an up-by-your-bootstraps Lithuanian immigrant and a physician tending to the poor – and you can see his shame in comparison. It is Caan’s mother who, when bailing him out, reminds him of where his money is going, into a criminal element that preys on the weak.

It nags him, but he seems to revel in slumming, which includes his relationship with his Texas girlfriend, a very good Lauren Hutton, a good time gal who has been around the block and down into the sewer with an addict before. Her revelation of that journey and her eventual, limp, exhausted rejection of a spiraling Caan are piercing.

Caan is compelling as a self-deluding addict desperate to survive his debts and his own moral rot (he was struggling with cocaine when he made the picture). Toback smartly gives us the opportunity to watch him teach. Caan seems like a really good professor of literature, which is important because there has to be some “there” there in which to invest. When I heard they remade this film with Mark Wahlberg, I assumed the script was revised so he was a high school shop teacher.

Jerry’s Fielding’s soundtrack is spot on, evoking the dread and juice of gambling.

The ending is a bit rushed, but otherwise, this is a solid picture and a worthy third of the triple feature of California Split and Mississippi Grind. On Amazon Prime.

De Palma a la Mod

A behind-the-scenes vignette from this film distorts its true putrescence. As the story goes, before scenes, serious actor Sean Penn kept whispering to the out-of-place and in-over-his-head small screen star Michael J. Fox the words “television actor”, to either torment him or to rally him.

It didn’t work. 

That said, while there is no question Fox is terrible, his awful performance serves the purpose of obscuring a host of other faults in this debacle.

There are, for example, hideous performances all around. Penn is execrable, delivering a turn of overacting so extreme you can almost smell it. He’s like a whirling dervish of beef, brew and Old Spice. Young John C. Reilly, John Leguizamo, and Ving Rhames are near incompetent and, like most everyone, entirely unconvincing.

But no one was given anything very good to say anyway. The script by playwright David Rabe is so overt it hits like an ABC “After School Special.” A stagey “What are we doing here, Sarge?” is pretty much every line of the picture.

Rabe served in Vietnam as a medic, which just goes to show that experience isn’t always the best progenitor of art.

Watch and see if you can hold your breakfast. 

Brian DePalma’s direction is also inapt and self-indulgent. I can think of few directors less suited for the material. There is a scene where Fox’s fellow soldiers attempt to frag him by putting a grenade in the latrine where, for no reason other than an ostentatious build-up, Fox has gone to attempt to light a cigarette, interminably. Because, when you want to smoke, no place is better than a Vietnam shithouse surrounded by big pails of excrement to enjoy it.  His lighter won’t work and after trying it for the umpteenth time (maybe more than 15, he really wants that smoke), he drops it, and lo and behold, the grenade is reflected off of the lighter’s stainless steel.

A Vietnam picture is no place for mimicking Hitchcock badly.

It gets worse. When Fox survives, he sees one of his tormentors, Reilly, peeking at him from behind sandbags, and all I could think of was 

The film also sports terrible art direction and location scouting. Vietnam looks like Disney’s Jungle Cruise, an incredible feat given some of it was shot in Thailand. Wherever they were, the actors were serviced by some of the best spas and salons available to them. I just never knew the combat experience in Vietnam was so tidy. Fox in particular looks like he was steam cleaned in every scene. Even when he has a head wound, his bandage is so brilliant white, it almost looks like a headband missing a feather. 

Finally, there is Fox’s height. In the old days, an actor’s short stature was taken into consideration. They’d put him on a hidden box, or shoot him from an angle that would favor him. Hell, in a tracking shot, they’d even build a trench for his leading lady as they ambled down the street.

Most film actors are short. 5’7″ seems to be the norm , but at 5’4″, Fox is diminutive, near tiny. Yet DePalma offered him no help. In the scene above, he grabs a taller soldier, a “cherry”, by the lapels to chew him out. He looks like a toddler clinging to an adult’s overalls, which is fitting, because for most of the film, with his childish, plaintive-comic mien, Fox presents like he lost his Mommy in aisle five of the Long Binh PX.  Yes, he’s short, but that’s not the whole of it. There is not an ounce of gravitas in the actor. “Oh, Jeez” sounds perilously close to “Oh Jeez, Mallory.”

The film is based on an actual war crime. What a woeful remembrance. 

With The Way of the Gun, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie assuredly expended the juice he’d earned writing The Usual Suspects to helm this noir-ish tale of a couple of fuck-ups (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe) who engineer a kidnapping with slapdash bravado and brutality. They have no idea the forces at play, and the greatest joy in the flick is their dogged aplomb as shit just gets worse and worse. These two losers are decent in the moment, but as exemplified in the movie’s best exchange, not exactly master planners:


Scenes like this one exemplify McQuarrie’s insistence on rejecting the cool in favor of the absurd. But that doesn’t mean he can’t direct an action sequence, and the final shootout is one for the ages. The film is also aided by Joe Kraemer’s moody, understated and anticipatory soundtrack (one of his firsts).