Sunday, September 28, 2008

First Newman, Then Santiago

Although the two men couldn't possibly fall further apart in show business circles, the recent deaths of Paul Newman and Cirio Santiago both are blows for film lovers. Newman's career, you already know about. One of the great movie stars. THE VERDICT. THE HUSTLER. HARPER. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. ABSENCE OF MALICE. COOL HAND LUKE. THE TOWERING INFERNO. NOBODY'S FOOL (very underrated). Big films. Important films.

Cirio H. Santiago, on the other hand, whose death was reported by Tim Lucas this weekend, is a filmmaker Paul Newman likely never even heard of, despite the fact that he's one of the most prolific and successful director/producers in the history of Asian cinema.

Santiago, who died Friday at age 72, began making movies in his native Philippines in the 1950s, but didn't make an impact Stateside until the early 1970s. That's when he hooked up with New World Pictures' Roger Corman, who hired Santiago to produce and to direct action-packed melodramas in the Philippines that made tons of money in U.S. drive-ins and continue to be popular among exploitation-movie fans today. As a director, pictures like FLY ME! (about sexy stewardesses), COVER GIRL MODELS (about, ahem, sexy cover girl models), TNT JACKSON (starring the gorgeous Jeanne Bell, who will "put you in traction") and many others. He also line-produced several pictures for Corman that he didn't direct, such as Jack Hill's renowned women-in-prison epics, THE BIG BIRD CAGE and THE BIG DOLL HOUSE.

As exploitation films changed in the 1980s, so did Santiago, who managed to crank out several films per year, most of which became perennial favorites on home video. A Santiago film is pretty easy to spot when you see one. It generally runs about 72 minutes, makes no narrative sense, offers tons of crazy action scenes, usually features Filipino fan favorites Vic Diaz and/or Joe Avellana, and delivers in the violence and nudity departments. Once you've seen Lynda Wiesmeier strapped topless to the hood of a speeding car in WHEELS OF FIRE, you're unlikely to ever forget.

Santiago never let his lack of production budget to stand in his way. For 1987's FAST GUN (starring SAVAGE STREETS' Robert Dryer as the heavy), set designers and builders found a very short stretch of dirt road in some park in the Philippines, and erected very unconvincing plywood facades intended to represent Main Street. The windows are made from white cardboard, rather than glass. It's hilarious watching sheriff Rick Hill (DEATHSTALKER) defending this "town" from villains, but Santiago wasn't one for details, it seems. The town itself doesn't really matter, Cirio seems to be saying. It's all about the action and visceral excitement of good guys vs. bad guys and giving the audience what it wants.

For whatever Cirio Santiago's faults as a filmmaker, letting his fans down was not one of them. The fact that he directed four different films in which the sexy female protagonist engaged in a kung fu battle while nude is proof of that.

P.S. They are TNT JACKSON (Jeanne Bell), FIRECRACKER (the late Jillian Kesner), ANGELFIST (the late Cat Sassoon) and ANGEL OF DESTRUCTION (Maria Ford). I recommend them all (if you can find them). Fred Adelman has a salute to Santiago up on his Web site.


Aaron W. Graham said...

A fine eulogy for an underrated filmmaker.

I read somewhere that Tarantino conducted a comprehensive, on-camera interview with Santiago (which early notices of the DEATH PROOF dvd described as an extra) -- wonder where that'll resurface. Hopefully, on a release of one of Santiago's better works!

katie said...

i don't always use paragraphs.

we all had a moment of silence for newman and santiago tonight. :( i should watch one of each of their films in their honors.