Saturday, May 01, 2010

Double Dose Of Fred Williamson

Kudos to Code Red for its recent release of two 1970s features directed by and starring Fred "The Hammer" Williamson as part of its Fred Williamson Signature Collection. Neither film is especially good, but both are watchable and surrounded by interesting extras that put the films in perspective.

The Hammer’s directorial debut, MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS, is mainly an exercise in bizarro casting. Would you believe Roddy McDowall (PLANET OF THE APES) as the son of Italian mobster Anthony Caruso? Or that Williamson and Stuart Whitman (THE COMANCHEROS) could have gone to high school at the same time? Me neither.

MEAN JOHNNY BARROWS is more ambitious, more interested in character, and features less action than Williamson’s later films would. Atlas Films marketed it as a standard black action picture, which it isn’t. It also isn’t very good, unless you like watching montages of Fred wandering around town.

One of four (!) Williamson-directed films released in 1976 casts Fred as a Vietnam vet unjustly discharged dishonorably and sent home to L.A., where he discovers his high-school football stardom and his Silver Star aren’t much help in getting a job or finding shelter. A gangster named Mario Ricconi (Whitman) tries to help, but Johnny wants no more to do with killing and ends up sweeping floors in a gas station. On the other hand, it’s hard to hold on to your dignity when you’re scrubbing toilets for $21 a month, and Johnny soon finds himself drawn into a Mob war between the Ricconis and the DaVinces.

Williamson’s film is very crude and clearly lensed on the cheap, but it aims higher than most of his oeuvre, creating a sadly believable existence for Johnny that culminates in a downer of an ending. He has a decent eye for camera angles and clever edits, often shooting with two cameras simultaneously, but there are serious problems with pacing and tone. There’s hardly any action until the second half, which is where Fred seems more at home, clad in a white turtleneck and gunning down the bad guys. The first dose of hilarious Fred fu comes 48 minutes against a couple of cops.

The foppish McDowall is miscast as a flower-loving drug dealer with a sexy mistress. “Special Guest Star” Elliott Gould (he and Williamson were in M*A*S*H together) pops up in a strange, brief, amusing, and improvised cameo as a hobo. The impressive supporting cast also included Jenny Sherman, R.G. Armstrong, Robert Phillips, Mike Henry, James Brown (THE ADVENTURES OF RIN TIN TIN), Aaron Banks (who was Williamson’s karate teacher), and Leon Isaac Kennedy.

DEATH JOURNEY, also released in 1976, stars Fred as cheroot-smoking private dick Jesse Crowder in a clumsy, poorly acted action film released by Atlas Films. Since Williamson’s method of working quickly and inexpensively often involves filming long takes with multiple cameras, he really could have used more experienced and more colorful actors to help with the film’s pacing. Except for the action sequences, everyone moves much too slowly. A love scene ends on a long dissolve which shows the actors frozen in place waiting for the director to call action before they clink their glasses together.

MIDNIGHT RUN used the same plot a decade later. NYC district attorney Riley (Art Meier) hires Crowder to bring a government witness to the Big Apple from Los Angeles. Crowder’s package is Finley (Bernard Kuby), a short, fat, bald Mob accountant with the goods on gangster Jack Rosewald (Patrick McCullough). Planes, trains, automobiles, and buses, no matter the mode of transportation, Rosewald’s goons always know where Crowder is. It won’t be hard to figure out who the mole is.

Writer Abel Jones and Williamson make no attempt at characterization. Finley likes candy and whines a lot. Crowder kicks ass and sexes up ladies. Bad guys leap out of the shadows no matter where they are; it’s so ridiculous it resembles a side-scrolling arcade game. Anthony Shinault’s repetitive score doesn’t punctuate the action, it just plays. Even at just 78 minutes and location shooting across the country (including Palm Springs, St. Louis, Chicago, Kansas City, and New York), DEATH JOURNEY is painfully padded with scenes lingering seconds too long and another featuring two L.A. cops harassing Crowder for no reason that I could see.

No comments: