Tuesday, May 31, 2011

An Avenger On Wheels

Not part of the Roger Corman's Cult Classics line, but it may as well have been, is Shout Factory's new DVD teaming two action pictures of the 1970s. FIGHTING MAD and MOVING VIOLATION, both released in 1976, were produced by Roger Corman for 20th Century Fox. It was a great opportunity for both parties; Fox got two crisp little drive-in moneymakers, and Corman got to work his magic using the (slightly) higher budgets of a major studio.

After directing two financially and surprisingly critically successful drive-in movies for Corman’s New World Pictures, Jonathan Demme (a future Oscar winner for SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) moved up to Fox for FIGHTING MAD, a rural vigilante picture inspired by WALKING TALL. It's an entertaining action movie laced with authentic Arkansas location shooting and a relevant ecological message.

FIGHTING MAD may well have been a decent picture no matter who directed it, but Demme’s careful handling raises it up a notch. The slow Dutching of the camera to punctuate a foreboding murder, the casting of perennial heavy John Doucette (TRUE GRIT) as a simple farmer, the guy who takes a punch from star Peter Fonda and then politely begs off from continuing the fight—little things, for sure, but they all add up to create an original atmosphere to surround a simple story.

Fonda (DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY) plays Tom Hunter, who returns with his son to the Arkansas farm where he grew up. His hometown has changed and not for the best, due to venal strip-miner Pierce Crabtree (LAREDO’s Philip Carey, chosen by Corman over Charles Napier for his name value), who’s buying up local farms and destroying the land. And the stubborn farmers who won’t sell, well, Crabtree makes them sell by dynamiting all night, dropping boulders on their crops, and physically threatening them. When Tom’s brother (Scott Glenn), sister-in-law (Kathleen Miller), and father (Doucette) are victims of mysterious “accidents,” he gets—ahem—fighting mad and pulls out the bow and arrows for some nighttime vengeance.

Demme, who also penned the screenplay, knows how to work the melodrama for maximum impact. Aided by the extra bucks, he’s able to shoot plenty of stunts and chases to make the action scenes exciting, but juxtaposing mining explosions with soft-focus shots of frightened horses, accompanied by Bruce Langhorne’s gentle score, really puts the audience on the side of the good guys. Amazingly, both Fonda and the ten-year-old playing his son, local actor Gino Franco, do stunts involving motorcycles and crashing cars, which may shock contemporary viewers.

By pumping up the characterizations and local color, Demme has created a tight B-picture that transcends its simple story. It’s still basically drive-in filler, but one of some substance.

Roger Corman and his wife Julie served as executive producer and producer, respectively, of MOVING VIOLATION. It has some minor casting problems, but overcomes them with its whip-sharp pacing and tire-squealing stuntwork. Television veteran Charles S. Dubin (M*A*S*H) seems an odd choice for director—he was several decades older than the young directors Corman used at New World, and he made only two features in forty years of directing—but it’s likely his fee was right, and his experience shooting TV crime dramas on six-day schedules worked in his favor.

A young couple, drifter Eddie (Stephen McHattie) and hometown cheerleader Camille (Kay Lenz), meet at the local ice cream joint and like each other. They sneak into an estate’s backyard to make out, where they witness the town sheriff (Lonny Chapman) murdering one of his deputies. Framed for the killing and targeted by Chapman’s men as “armed and dangerous” terrorists, the youths run for their lives in a series of stolen vehicles with only sympathetic lawyer Alex Warren (Eddie Albert) on their side.

Dubin, who jumped a lot of cars and blew up plenty of stuff on TV shows like KOJAK and CANNON, provides the drive-in audience with a steady stream of smashed-up cars, shootings, and stunts, although Roger Corman’s habit of undercranking to make the chases look faster is annoying and distracting. The mumbly McHattie, who acted in Corman’s VON RICHTOVEN AND BROWN, is slightly miscast (he, not surprisingly, played James Dean in a telefilm the same year), and Albert, who is excellent, would have been a tighter fit as the corrupt sheriff. However, these are niggling faults, and more than outweighed by Lenz’s appealing turn (and she does have good chemistry with McHattie).

William Norton (BIG BAD MAMA) and David Osterhout (WOMEN IN CAGES) wrote the screenplay, which functions as a decent springboard for second unit director Barbara Peeters’ gags. No question that MOVING VIOLATION is a fun romp that compares nicely with the many car-chase programmers that dotted drive-ins during the 1970s.

Shout Factory includes trailers and TV spots for each film and accompanies them with an audio commentary track. FIGHTING MAD's includes Roger Corman, Demme, Lynn Lowry, and Peter Fonda, who wanders in unannounced during recording. It's quite informative and entertaining. Everyone has a good memory of making the film, and Demme remembers such trivia as ROLLERBALL author William Harrison playing a small role and shooting a jail scene on a set built for Corman's JACKSON COUNTY JAIL.

The MOVING VIOLATION track includes director Dubin, now in his 90s, whose recording is edited into a separate track voiced by Julie Corman and McHattie. Dubin doesn't have a lot to say, mainly because so much of the picture was actually directed by the second unit, and much of what he says is either obvious stuff or mentioning how great someone is. Corman seems like a nice, smart lady, and her efforts to elicit memories from the tightlipped McHattie leads to a funny moment. After saying very little, McHattie finally opens up to remember a stuntman who refused to do a particular crash for the price Julie wanted to pay. So "a young guy from Oklahoma" volunteered to do it for the smaller fee, but the stunt went awry, and he broke his leg. McHattie says, "You remember that?" Corman's response is a long uncomfortable silence.

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