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70s

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.

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.

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.

The Parallax View (1974) - IMDb

A regional reporter (Warren Beatty) stumbles on not so much a plot as an institutionalized corporate conspiracy of assassination.  The closer Beatty gets to the source, the more he realizes that what he initially deemed ludicrous is in fact a chilling reality.  

Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller was probably more relevant upon its release.  With the shooting of JFK in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65, RFK and MLK in ’68, George Wallace in ’72 (a mere 2 years before the picture’s release), political assassination was preeminent in the mind of your average filmgoer.  And no one does paranoia quite a well as Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent). 

The picture is creepy and certainly makes the viewer feel anxious,. In particular, the movie potential assassins are required to watch in order to gauge their suitability/brainwash them is in and of itself overpowering.

But the film suffers from two significant handicaps.  First, the Beatty character is a cypher.  He is dogged and cynical, but he is invested with no backstory, motive or any other compelling feature.  Given how things turn out, this may be part of the message, but it makes for some stifled yawns as we travel his route to dawning.  Second, the plot is a mess.  Sure, I fully understand an assassination corporation maybe knocking off a true existential political threat once a decade. The Parallax Corporation, however, kills two United States senators and attempts to kill a third, in the space of three years, and even when they have done the good work of pinning it on a brainwashed loner stooge (the corporation’s m.o.), they threaten their entire operation by wiping out potential witnesses after the deed.  I’m not talking one or two witnesses.  After the film’s opening a scene (a gripping assassination on top of Seattle’s Space Needle), nine “witnesses” (it’s not clear they actually see anything) are taken out, a number extraordinary enough that Beatty is drawn in to dig deeper. In the final assassination, a sniper takes down a senator in front of an entire marching band.  That is going to be one helluva cleanup.

This is no way to run a railroad.           

Let us stipulate at the outset that pre-CGI disaster movies sit in the softest spot in my heart. When I was a kid, you couldn’t keep me away from them.  The first movie I saw without a parent was The Poseidon Adventure (’72) at The Avalon on Connecticut Avenue. My mom had a small gift shop appended to that theater, so they let me and a friend come in to see whatever we wanted. In that dark movie house, sitting with Jimmy Sullivan, jujifruits in hand, I was IN that dank, doomed ship and with that besieged group led by another cool priest (Gene Hackman, though he never rivaled Jason Miller in The Exorcist).  With poor Roddy McDowell and his shattered and bloody kneecap and Stella Stevens, Ernie Borgnine’s tough talking, busty wife, who had the moxie to tell the heavier Shelly Winters that, um, no, she’s going into the tube first:  “I’m going next. So if ole’ fat ass gets stuck, I won’t get stuck behind her.”  I’m 9 years old.  That was something.  Throw in pre-Nancy Drew (Pamela Sue Martin).  

I was lost to it all.

I inhaled everything that came next.  Earthquake (’74) (in Sensurround!)  Oh my God, Charlton Heston, don’t you dare give up Genevieve Bujold to jump in the sewers and save a doomed Ava Gardner! 

All the Airports (’70, ’75, ’77, and ’79).  I loved George Kennedy and later, when I saw him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, I was shocked that such a gruff teddy bear could play such an awful villain. 

You can throw in The Hindenburg (’75) as well, though I kind of knew how that was going to end.       

I even went to the theater to see The Swarm (’78). Killer bees are, apparently, an ever-present threat to nuclear reactors. 

Then there were the disasters created by bad men (not just the poor salesman who blew up the airliner in Airport because he needed to leave his wife an insurance payoff).

Juggernaut (’74) – an ocean liner is rigged to blow (red wire or green wire!!!) and the bomb squad, led by Richard Harris, has to be dropped on the ship in rough seas to defuse the bomb. I’m still haunted by the scene of a member of the bomb squad missing the ship and just being . . . . left.  Liners cannot turn around.

Black Sunday (’77) – a blimp threatens The Super Bowl, helmed by the deadly serious Robert Shaw and an intriguing Marthe Keller (first German I ever had a crush on)

Rollercoaster (’77) – Tim Bottoms blowing up my favorite rides, including King’s Dominion’s The Rebel Yell (since re-christened The Rebel Scum)

Okay, that’s a long preamble.  The Towering Inferno has it all. Let me count the ways.

1)  Stars.  Yuge stars!  Bigly stars!  McQueen. Newman. Dunaway. Holden. Come on.

2)  OJ Simpson as a good guy.  He knows the security is for shit.  He lets McQueen know the place is a tinderbox, and then he saves a deaf woman.  And a cat.

3)  Shocking deaths.  They kill Robert Wagner and all he did was sleep with his secretary in the upper offices after foolishly having the phones cut off for privacy (by the way, I think his secretary is 10 years older than Wagner, which is pretty advanced).  Jennifer Jones seems as safe as any character can be, and then, boom, she just falls out of elevator and they bounce her off the structure.  My Lord, the genial bartender who was later a regular on Barney Miller, he gets crushed.

4) Moments of great bravery. By the innocent and even those a little bit responsible.  Guess what?  In 1974, it was still women and children first.  Even Richard Chamberlain, Holden’s shit-bird son-in-law who took kickbacks on the crappy wiring and dysfunctional sprinkler system, waited to try and jump the escape line after the women and children were evacuated. Holden ain’t clean, but he rises to the occasion announcing, much like a ship captain, that he will go down with the skyscraper.  Robert Vaughan is a United States senator and he buys it trying to keep Chamberlain from jumping the line.   And Wagner’s attempt to save his secretary is akin to a singular Charge of the Light Brigade.

6)  It works. At its’ silliest (you only learn about the million gallons of water on the top of the building in the last 20 minutes), it is always watchable.     

7) Professional camaraderie.  Steve McQueen’s number two in the San Francisco police department in Bullitt was his number two in the San Francisco fire department.  

On HBO Max.

What a strange find on Amazon Prime. A 1970s black comedy with John Huston playing the Joseph Kennedy character and Jeff Bridges playing Bobby, if Bobby was sweet tempered and had no political ambitions after the death of his brother. Of course, this is not the Kennedys, but the Kegans, and little brother Bridges is swept up into a re-investigation of his half brother’s assassination after a lone gunman has been fingered by the equivalent of the Warren Commission. In essence, Bridges goes on a dangerous wild goose chase (egged on by his father, who hopes this will propel the son into heroism and political fortune) to find the real powers behind the killing, after a second shooter confesses.

The film is absurdist, and doesn’t really work as either a comedy or a thriller. But uneven as it is, you have to be somewhat in awe of its ambition. The rumor is that the Kennedy family was none too pleased with the feature back when it had the power to squelch it, but the film is so uneven, it likely didn’t need any opposition from the dynasty. Bridges is winning, and Huston is a gas as the corrupt, sybarite of a patriarch, and the whole thing is best when it is trippy.  Worth the time.  

We have started a new tradition at home when all four of us are present. One of us gets to pick the movie and the other three have no veto power. I was first up and showed this gem, primarily to discomfort my wife and daughter, but also because Sean Connery had just passed and the movie always had a soft spot in my heart. In the first minutes, Connery did not disappoint: he pulled off a woman’s bikini top and strangled her with it until she gave up information on how to find his nemesis Blofeld. He also popped another woman in the mouth. Not to get too far off track, but while I can see that James Bond is certainly no paragon of modernity, the fact that he smacks women around for information always struck me as one of his more proto-feminist qualities. He does not discriminate.  Blofeld first. Chivalry second.

I loved this movie when I was a kid because when my brother and I went to Puerto Rico, and we started to fight with each other, my abuela took him for the day, and my abeulo took me. I am certain that I got the better of the deal, because I had lunch at a restaurant in San Juan where my hamburger was brought to me on an electric train. Then we went to see a double feature: this second run flick was the opener to the first run feature about a killer octopus, Tenacles. We drank up Bond and left during the fish movie. 

My love for the film grew a little more because I married a doppelgänger to Jill St. John. Of course, one would never marry a woman based on the firm imprint of a beautiful Bond girl during adolescence. But it doesn’t hurt. 

To the film. It’s pretty awful. You can see that this entry of the series was the one most heavily relied upon by Mike Myers in his Austin Powers send ups. Bond is dead-to-rights on four separate occasions, and on each, rather than shoot him dead, the villains consign him to some elaborate end which he foils. 

Worse, contrary to almost every other Bond film, the picture is ugly. The closest we get to an exotic locale is Amsterdam, where we see a dead body pulled out of one of the canals. Other than that, it’s gruesome 1970 Las Vegas, a desert, some kind of hidden missile base, and a finale on a grubby oil rig. The interior decoration seems to be Playboy-meets-The Poconos. When your most picturesque locale in a Bond film is the 1979 Circus Circus casino, oof. 

The movie also makes absolutely no sense and attempts to rely on the comic to the exclusion of any intelligible plot.  Sometimes, it borders on an episode of The Monkees. Almost every other movie in the early series entries are better.  A dog, but near and dear to my heart.

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Futuristic flicks from the 70s are a guilty pleasure of mine and I watched a bunch of them with my father growing up. Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, The Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, Death Race 2000. You could count us in.

This one is meh. The world is run by a few corporations.  The executive class is the aristocracy, and they entertain themselves with luxury and regular ingestion of what seems to be a mix of ecstasy and LSD. The sport of the global masses is Rollerball, a violent and deadly mixture of roller derby, lacrosse, hockey and maul ball. James Caan is its biggest star, but for reasons unknown to us, he is being forced out of the game at his peak by corporate titan John Houseman, at a moment when the sport is moving to a “no penalty” phase, which will up the murders and further endanger his teammates.  Caan resists and delves deeper.

The picture mixes futurism and corporate skullduggery, but the latter is simplistic, and Caan’s attempt to get to the bottom of things is haphazard and a little dull. Caan also can’t convey the emerging intellect that could drive his lummox of a character to ask deeper questions. He seems as if he senses the silliness of the endeavor, and appears to be wincing at his own involvement.  Also, Houseman is really not a very good actor, pretty much at the level of his old Smith Barney commercials.

But the flick has its fun moments.  And even though one doesn’t equate director Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, And Justice for All) and “action,” the Rollerball itself is good, clean, bloody fun.

On Amazon Prime.

Amazon.com: California Split POSTER (11" x 17"): Posters & Prints

Robert Altman directed this film after his three masterpieces – M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye – and directly before his next one, Nashville. It has all the hallmarks of an Altman film . . . overlapping dialogue, a leisurely almost poetic pace, and a complete disregard for traditional narrative.

The film is essentially about two degenerate gamblers – George Segal and Eilliot Gould – who haunt the poker rooms, casinos and race tracks of California and Nevada in search of the juice. While Gould is carefree and seemingly happily stuck in the mire, Segal has one foot in the straight world and one foot in the dens of iniquity. He owes, he craves, and he can’t wait for the next shot at a pot, so much so that when Gould leave him for a week, he feels as if he’s being ripped off, that somehow, his partner is keeping a score away from him.

Unlike some of Altman’s better films, there’s no real character development here.  Segal and Gould simply happen upon each other at a poker room and start hanging out and kibbitzing, often with two working girls who live with Gould.  Altman is so intrigued by the machinations of the lowlife, he forgets that we are only here to see what happens to these addicts.  And, until the end, not much does happen to them.

Ultimately, Segal comes to a fork in the road, but it is a bolt from the blue.  We don’t know much about him and Altman doesn’t really let us in.  So, when he takes one road over another, it is of no real moment.

Still, it’s a fascinating picture with a real affinity for the disreputable denizens of the 70’s cocktail bar, race track and casino.  Altman doesn’t glorify but he does offer a vivid portrait of the world.