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.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

You Can't Buy A Ticket To See This Movie

Swedish director Gunnar Hellstrom’s American work was almost entirely in episodic television, helming network westerns (GUNSMOKE) and cop shows (THE FBI). His lone big-screen venture was an unusual thriller produced by Joe Solomon (THE LOSERS) and distributed in 1968 by his Fanfare Films (AIP also released it in various territories).

Seen on local television as THE FEMALE TRAP, THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! boasts a very good Stu Phillips (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) score and sharp Vilmos Zsigmond (THE DEER HUNTER) photography. The screenplay by Gary Crutcher (STANLEY) is damned unusual and structured like a mystery. It offers juicy roles for its five leading characters with strong dialogue and a helluva twist that will unfortunately not surprise anyone who’s seen HEAD. Unfortunately, it opened the day after RFK’s assassination, and a movie called THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! didn’t have a chance.

Jack Lord, just before beginning his twelve-season run on HAWAII FIVE-0, plays Symcha, a Hungarian immigrant wandering across the Arizona desert on foot. He’s picked up by the lovely Mickey Terry (THE TRIP's Susan Strasberg), who brings him back to the isolated gas station she operates with her sisters Diz (TV mainstay Collin Wilcox) and Nan (Tisha Sterling, COOGAN'S BLUFF) and their mother. Mr. Terry was apparently an abusive husband who was killed when the girls were children, but no one can keep their stories straight when explaining the incident. It’s pretty clear that the whole damn family is whacko, but Sym falls for Mickey, leading to jealousy, lust, and the revelation of some pretty messed-up Terry secrets.

Never available on VHS or DVD, THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! has been difficult to see for decades, but if you get the chance to see it, do. It’s fairly talky and bloodless for what has been billed as a horror movie, but it makes up for its lack of action with its characterizations and performances by stars who rarely had material this odd in Hollywood. Sterling’s sizzling dance to the Electric Prunes’ “Shadows” is a highlight.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Stripped Of Everything They Had

With all due respect to Jack Hill’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE and THE BIG BIRD CAGE, if CHAINED HEAT isn’t the greatest women-in-prison flick ever made, I don’t know what is.

Jam-packed with preposterous plotting, arch performances, hilarious dialogue, and gobs of female nudity, CHAINED HEAT lacks the social satire of Hill’s New World programmers, but more than makes up for it in the camp department. Surely the humor is intentional; the warden (John Vernon) has a Jacuzzi in his office, for chrissake, where the coke-snorting perv videotapes his sex sessions with inmate Monique Gabrielle (EMMANUELLE V).

The premise is nothing new. Sweet-cheeked Linda Blair (SAVAGE STREETS), 23 when she made this, stars as Carol, the new fish doing eighteen months for manslaughter. In prison, she finds herself trapped between the warring factions of the white inmates led by tough, cheroot-smoking Ericka (Sybil Danning, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) and the Amazonian Duchess’ (Tamara Dobson, who played Cleopatra Jones in two 1970s blaxploitation flicks) black inmates. Eventually, the two sides fight together against a common enemy: repressed assistant warden Taylor (Stella Stevens, the villain in CLEOPATRA JONES AND THE CASINO OF GOLD) and pimp Lester (Henry Silva, memorable as the drug-soaked assassin in SHARKY'S MACHINE), who sneak girls out of the prison at night to work as prostitutes for rich men.

What first strikes you about CHAINED HEAT is the all-star exploitation cast, which also includes Sharon Hughes, Edy Williams (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS), Irwin Keyes, Louisa Moritz, Greta Blackburn, Robert Miano, and Jennifer Ashley (THE POM POM GIRLS). And it’s definitely bizarre to see CAT BALLOU’s light leading man, Michael Callan, billed somewhere around a dozen for a two-minute scene as a creep who tries to rape Blair’s character. Although the pleasantly plump Blair, who performed her first nude scene in CHAINED HEAT, has claimed the screenplay by director Paul Nicolas (THE NAKED CAGE) and Aaron Butler (HELLHOLE) changed during shooting and was not what she had signed up for, the actors seem to know what kind of movie they’re in and ham it up appropriately. Vernon gets the best lines (after Gabrielle’s character is killed, he mutters, “She was the best piece of ass I ever had in here.”), and much of the fun in watching the movie comes from the gleefully over-the-top performances.

CHAINED HEAT isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It may be the grimiest American-made women-in-prison picture with nary six or seven minutes passing without a murder or rape attempt, and those viewers immune to the charms of its stars or the wonky screenplay may find it to be something less than tasteful. Nicolas shoots the violence without gloss, making CHAINED HEAT a tough haul for someone without the peculiar sense of humor necessary to succumb to its perverted pleasures. Oddly, it’s one of the few prison pictures in which the protagonists’ goal is not escape, but rather prison reform.

CHAINED HEAT's NSFW theatrical trailer:

Friday, May 20, 2011

New York Has A New Weapon

Five years after his first American production, the unsuccessful THE BIG BRAWL, Jackie Chan teamed with New York action director James Glickenhaus (THE EXTERMINATOR) for a second shot at impressing the North American market.

THE PROTECTOR is not highly thought of by Chan fans, but it deserves a better rep. Granted, it doesn't use Chan to his full potential. It’s a solid cop flick filled with chases, fights, and bloody shootouts, but it appears as though Jackie is being doubled for the more spectacular stunts.

New York detectives Billy Wong (Chan) and Danny Garoni (Danny Aiello), both on the Commissioner’s shit list for excessive use of force, are working security at a fashion show when designer Laura Shapiro (Saun Ellis) is kidnapped by masked gunmen. They deduce she’s been taken to Hong Kong. Touting Billy’s Chinatown contacts and Danny’s familiarity with the island during his stint in Vietnam, the new partners convince the New York brass to send them to Hong Kong to find the girl.

Of course, being maverick cops, Wong and Garoni proceed to tear hell out of half the city, as Glickenhaus subjects them to enough exploding cars, machine gun bullets, anonymous kung fu fighters, broken glass, and giant squibs to keep any undiscerning action fan occupied for a couple of hours. Highlights include Jackie’s running and leaping across an obstacle course made of junks and a climactic fight with a racist bodyguard played by Bill “Superfoot” Wallace. THE PROTECTOR is clearly a James Glickenhaus joint, from the slow-motion free-falling bodies to the giant squibs blowing apart stuntmen’s chests, and if you got a kick out of Glickenhaus' THE EXTERMINATOR or THE SOLDIER, you’ll like this one too. Just don’t ask me what the opening scene is all about.

Somehow, THE PROTECTOR failed to attract American audiences, probably because of a resistance to an Asian leading man, and it wasn’t until RUMBLE IN THE BRONX made waves in 1996 that Chan finally found mainstream U.S. success. THE PROTECTOR is a much better movie than RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, so perhaps timing was everything.

In an unusual move, Chan was allowed to create his own version of THE PROTECTOR for Asian markets, eliminating a lot of Aiello and all the nudity and directing additional fight scenes. I prefer the Glickenhaus cut, but I can understand why Jackie’s fans would prefer his.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kill Oscar

The three-part “Kill Oscar” episode is considered the magnum opus of the bionic adventures of spies Steve Austin (Lee Majors) and Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner).

Airing over eight nights on ABC in October and November of 1976, the shows’ most ambitious story aired first on THE BIONIC WOMAN with Part II on THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and the conclusion back on BW. It not only proved popular with the series’ young fans, but it also introduced one of the franchise’s most enduring foes: the Fembots, which were later spoofed in AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY.

To get you up to speed, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN premiered in 1974 and starred Majors (THE BIG VALLEY) as astronaut Austin, who was critically injured in a plane crash and rebuilt by Dr. Rudy Wells (Alan Oppenheimer in the pilot, but played regularly by Martin E. Brooks when “Kill Oscar” aired) using bionic parts. With super-strength in his right arm, left eye, and both legs, Steve became an agent for the Office of Scientific Intelligence under Oscar Goldman (Anderson).

Sommers was a professional tennis player and Austin’s childhood flame who was nearly killed in a skydiving accident and also given bionic parts—in her case, an arm, both legs, and an ear. The character was extremely popular with viewers, and even though Jaime died in her initial appearance, ABC had her revived and spun off into her own series, THE BIONIC WOMAN, in 1976. Both Majors and Wagner occasionally appeared on each other’s shows, including the “Kill Oscar” trilogy, which crossed over between them.

“Kill Oscar” guest-stars Academy Award-winner John Houseman (who played Wagner’s father in THE PAPER CHASE) as Franklin, a mad scientist hired by the Soviets to snatch a weather-control device being created by the U.S. government. His plan involves replacing key government personnel with robot duplicates, including Goldman (Anderson).

Writers Arthur Rowe, William T. Zacha, and Oliver Crawford make an attempt to connect Franklin’s misogyny to his choice to create robots in the form of beautiful women, but characterization was not the strong suit of either series at this point. After Jaime is critically injured fighting with fembot duplicates of Goldman’s secretary (Jennifer Darling) and Rudy Wells’ assistant (Corinne Michaels), Austin learns the location of Franklin’s base and heads there alone to rescue Oscar. Steve battles a pair of red-haired fembots and is tricked into rescuing an Oscar duplicate.

He and Rudy eventually see through the ruse and deactivate the Goldman double, just as Franklin uses the weather device to wreak havoc around the world. Steve and a recovered Jaime convince a Naval admiral (Sam Jaffe) to lend them an atomic submarine, which they use to storm Franklin’s Caribbean island stronghold.

“Kill Oscar” is silly, campy fun. It isn’t the first time human-looking robots were represented in the SMDM/BW universe, but it’s the grandest. Producers Kenneth Johnson and Lionel E. Siegel pack the three-parter with bionic battles, explosions, futuristic sets, stock footage of disasters, and goofy special effects that may not be convincing today, but there’s no doubting the gasps emitted from 1970s kids when the fembots’ human faces were ripped off to reveal the creepy mechanics behind them.

Wagner was a natural performer with an uncanny ability to find chemistry with nearly every actor she worked with. Her loose style meshed perfectly with the laconic Majors whether they were exchanging quips or leaping small buildings in a single bound. “Kill Oscar” was their last appearance together in the Seventies; THE BIONIC WOMAN was cancelled after its second season and picked up for a third by NBC, which was reluctant to publicize its competition.

Universal cranked episodes out like sausages, hiring directors better known for working quickly than with any style. Alan Crosland Jr. and Barry Crane managed to get all the planned shots in their six-day schedules, but an event as special as “Kill Oscar” could have used a stronger directorial hand.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Nice Place To Visit

Laurence Harvey, the Lithuanian-born and South African-raised actor best known for starring in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, was already dead from stomach cancer by the time his final film as an actor, executive producer, and director came out.

Warner Brothers didn’t much know what to do with WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH, and it later played in drive-ins in a much shorter version under the blunter title TENDER FLESH. I saw the so-called “uncut” Warners version with a Brut Productions logo and the original title. Scenes appear to be missing though and were reportedly dropped by Warners in the test-screening phase.

Hitchhiker Robbin (Meg Foster) is chilling on a California beach when kindly Korean War vet Jason (Harvey) invites her to spend the night with him and his sister/lover Grace (Joanna Pettet, who had recently co-starred with Harvey in a famous NIGHT GALLERY segment). Investigating a banging noise in the cellar, Robbin discovers Jason chopping up a human corpse and eating it! At least, I think so; the editing is pretty choppy here. Robbin runs to sheriff John Ireland (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS) and deputy Stuart Whitman (RUBY). Neither believes her story, but Robbin swears to play Nancy Drew and get to the bottom of things.

Harvey’s movie, written mainly by THE SILENT SCREAM’s Wallace C. Bennett, is certainly an odd duck, but not really good. It putts along slowly and feels padded with scenes that don’t go anywhere. Certainly the car chase that opens the movie is extraneous. Not much of an attempt is made to explain Jason’s cannibalism, or if there was, the footage was dropped. A brief flashback of Jason surviving a plane crash may indicate that he ate his comrades to survive. Or it may not.

The movie has several very good individual moments that demonstrate Harvey’s affection for actors. His scenes with a washed-up hooker (an excellent Gloria LeRoy) are played for pathos, Whitman’s snappy interrogation of Foster works terrifically, and Ireland being interviewed by a left-wing newspaper is humorous. Lou Rawls’ soulful theme song and Tony Camillo’s incongruous score add to the picture’s eccentric nature.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Death Squad

The Death Squad series is similar to Manor Books' Kill Squad series. Both are about a trio of renegade cops who hunt bad guys that have escaped punishment due to the flaming liberals who operate the legal system. Both series were shortlived, violent, and not terribly well-written. The only real difference is that one of the Kill Squad is a woman and one of the Death Squad is Latino.

Set in San Diego, KILLERS FOR HIRE, the second and last Death Squad novel from Belmont Tower, starts with black police detective Sam Durham witnessing a man tossing a young woman off a bridge. He tries to save her, but it's difficult when the guy keeps shooting at him. Sam knows the killer is noted criminal Carlos Reyes, but his superiors don't believe him, and, besides, Reyes has an alibi.

Although the book starts with Durham as the main character, the focus soon shifts to Mark Sanders, a white man who is allowed the story's love scenes. The third member of the Death Squad, Raul Gomez, basically serves as comic relief (he would be played by Luis Guzman in the movie version). All three eventually track Reyes to Las Vegas (they engage in a shootout with bikers along the way) in an attempt to bust his alibi and kill a lot more criminals.

KILLERS FOR HIRE isn't bad for what it is. It was written by 47-year-old Dan Streib under the pseudonym Frank Colter. Streib was one of those journeyman who often hid behind pen names and wrote novels in several different genres, including westerns and romances. He also some of the Nick Carter and Executioner books. Both Death Squad books came out in 1975 and may have even been written back-to-back, probably in just a few weeks. KILLERS FOR HIRE is a quick violent read, but nothing you haven't seen before.

Friday, May 06, 2011

They'll Steal Your Heart...And Rob Your Bank

Three relatively minor Roger Corman productions pop up on this easygoing, no-frills DVD as part of Shout Factory's Roger Corman's Cult Classics collection.

The cream of the crop is 1976's THE GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE. The late Claudia Jennings (TRUCK STOP WOMEN) had one of her best roles in this women-on-the-run pic that predates the similar THELMA & LOUISE, but she’s overshadowed by her co-star Jocelyn Jones (TOURIST TRAP), who has a juicier role to run with.

Just as soon as Candy (Jennings) busts out of prison, she’s back at the lawbreakin’ game, using the explosives experience she picked up on the joint’s road construction crew to rob banks using dynamite as a weapon. On her first gig, she runs into an unexpected ally—Ellie Jo (Jones), who’s just been fired from her teller job for being late and enthusiastically aids Candy in collecting the cash. With no plans and no one else to turn to, the young women decide to team up as “dynamite women,” (also the film’s alternate title in some drive-ins) traveling around Texas in a Rolls Royce knocking over small town banks. Johnny Crawford (Top 40 fans might remember his hit, “Cindy’s Birthday”) plays Slim, a hostage who becomes a partner and Ellie Jo’s lover.

Although released by New World Pictures, TEXAS lacks a certain energy that characterizes most of that studio’s output (it was produced elsewhere as a negative pickup for New World). Both leads deliver fine performances, although only Jones has a well-rounded character to play. We learn little about Candy, just that she has a family and served time in prison for some unknown offense, and her character doesn’t progress much from there. As befitting a former PLAYBOY Playmate, Jennings spends much time unclothed, asserting her sexuality as she wills.

Jones, the daughter of familiar character actor Henry Jones (ARACHNOPHOBIA), also appears nude, as does Crawford, who must have stunned audiences who grew up with him as Chuck Connors’ little boy on THE RIFLEMAN. Director Michael Pressman, still a successful journeyman in television more than thirty years later, stages a few car chases and shootouts, but not spectacularly so (though putting the actresses inside the car while another one driven by stuntmen weaves alongside is fairly impressive). Disguising California as Texas isn’t so easy, particularly when Pressman (DOCTOR DETROIT) uses the same Newhall city block to represent two different towns.

While TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE certainly lives up to the last three-fourths of its title, perhaps MILDLY DIVERTING TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE is more applicable.

One of Dirk Benedict’s first post-GALACTICA roles was in 1980's TV pilot GEORGIA PEACHES. An obvious attempt to copy THE DUKES OF HAZZARD, PEACHES features plenty of amazing stunts, including car jumps, a couple of Rockford slides, Benedict driving through a wall of fire, and a helicopter explosion that sends large chunks of flaming wreckage awfully close to the stuntmen.

Country star Tanya Tucker and Terri Nunn (later to sing “Take My Breath Away” with Berlin) topline as Lorette and Sue Lynn Peach, co-owners of a Georgia body shop that the local Boss Hogg, devilish Vivian Stark (Sally Kirkland), has her eyes on. To get rid of the Peaches, Vivian frames the sisters and Sue Lynn’s moonshine-drivin’ boyfriend Dusty (Benedict) for car theft. To clear their name, the trio go undercover for T-Man Dukane (Lane Smith) to bust Vivian for cigarette smuggling.

Nunn and Benedict play with twinkly charm. Tucker is appealing enough and gets to sing a few songs. On the downside are R. Donovan Fox’s indecent score, Kirkland’s unmemorable villainy, and lazy plotting that could fit any number of countrified action movies filling the network airwaves at the time. At least director Daniel Haller (BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY) keeps it all moving like a pro, providing his boss Corman with decent car-crash fare. CBS aired the pilot in November 1980, but it didn’t go as a series. Corman released it theatrically overseas as FOLLOW THAT CAR.

Last and least on the DVD is 1981's SMOKEY BITES THE DUST, which recycles not just action scenes, but also the plot of GRAND THEFT AUTO. Teenage wiseguy Roscoe (minor teen idol Jimmy McNichol, Kristy’s brother) kidnaps homecoming queen Peggy Sue (Janet Julian, who was Janet Louise Johnson when she was doing all those Glen A. Larson TV episodes) and is chased across the California countryside by Peggy Sue’s overprotective father and sheriff Turner (Walter Barnes), religious football player Kenny (future star William Forsythe), Roscoe’s friend Harold (John Blyth Barrymore), the car’s owner (New World regular Dick Miller), and a roster of lowbrow comic types.

Like other comedies directed by Charles B. Griffith (UP FROM THE DEPTHS), SMOKEY is jammed with off-kilter wordplay, broad stereotypes, non sequiters, and funny names, and very little of it is funny. What pleasure SMOKEY provides is more likely due to second unit director Allan Holzman (FORBIDDEN WORLD) and the earlier movies Griffith steals footage from, including MOVING VIOLATION, THUNDER AND LIGHTNING, and EAT MY DUST! (which Griffith also directed). Mel Welles (LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) is a sheik, Rance Howard (GRAND THEFT AUTO) is a football coach, Angelo Rossitto (THE CORPSE VANISHES) is a hotel clerk, and Griffith appears as a deputy.

With three movies on two discs, one can't argue he didn't get his money's worth, even though the only extras on the set are trailers for GREAT TEXAS DYNAMITE CHASE and SMOKEY BITES THE DUST. CBS promos for GEORGIA PEACHES would have been cool, but who knows if any still exist. By the way, the PEACHES print is a 1.78:1 theatrical version titled FOLLOW THAT CAR, CHASE is also a nice 1.78 print, and SMOKEY is a blurry but watchable full-frame print, probably taken from the VHS.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Terrorist Next Door

THREAT is, quite simply, one of the most clever and exciting thrillers I've ever read. There is a great movie to be made in there somewhere, something along the lines of THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE. In fact, THREAT was optioned in the 1980s, but no film was made, and again in 2009 by Carolina Films for a movie rumored to star Charlie Sheen and be directed by Nick Cassavetes. Well, I guess that's out.

THREAT was published in 1981, the final book by Richard Jessup, whose best-known work is THE CINCINNATI KID, which was filmed starring Steve McQueen in 1966. He also wrote westerns, under his own name and that of Richard Telfair, and one of those, CHUKA, was filmed starring Rod Taylor.

I hate to say too much about THREAT, because the less you know about the story, the richer the experience of reading it will be. It centers around two men, Chris Murdoch, who's in charge of a brand new 100-story New York City skyscraper called The St. Cyr Tower (sincere?), and a Vietnam War vet calling himself Tonio Vega, who needs $4 million to get his twin brother out of a Viet Cong prisoner-of-war camp.

Tonio's scheme to earn $4 million is ingenious and involves extorting the wealthy owner of the St. Cyr Tower, Spain. Jessup's convoluted plot requires some patience. He drops clues early on that don't appear to mean anything, but they all eventually pay off by the end. By the time Jessup has finished dotting his i's and crossing his t's, you'll be tempted to turn back a hundred pages or so to see whether or not he has played fair with the reader (hint: he has).

THREAT is more than just a witty plot, however. Jessup's characterizations of Vega and Murdoch are on the money--smart, principled men with a healthy respect for each other, even though they never meet until the last page. What may surprise you is your admiration for Tonio, who is a murderer, but is also brilliant and committed to a moral cause it's easy to identify with.

I can't remember where I found my used paperback copy of THREAT, but it's easily worth the couple of dollars I must have paid for it. I urge you to seek it out; Amazon has used copies available for a penny (plus shipping). It's 280 pages and doesn't wear out its welcome for even one of them.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Fate Moved Its Huge Hand

FEAR IN A DESERT TOWN, a Pocket Cardinal paperback original from 1964, is the only novel based on the hit TV series THE FUGITIVE.

Created by Roy Huggins, the ABC series starred David Janssen (RICHARD DIAMOND, PRIVATE DETECTIVE) as Richard Kimble, an Indiana pediatrician convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of his wife Helen. However, as the audience knew from the opening titles, Kimble was innocent. Freed when a train wreck unshackled him from Lieutenant Philip Gerard (Barry Morse), the detective transporting him to "the Death House," Kimble spent 120 episodes bouncing around the United States, taking odd jobs, helping people in trouble, and searching for the one-armed man he saw running from his house the night of Helen's murder.

The opening episode, written by Stanford Whitmore and airing September 17, 1963, was titled "Fear in a Desert City." Despite the paperback's claim on the cover of being an "original novel," Roger Fuller's book is based on the Whitmore teleplay, including character names and plot. Why Whitmore isn't credited, I don't know, since I'm sure any FUGITIVE fan would recognize the book's TV origin right away.

As "Desert City" is a good episode, DESERT TOWN is a good book. Part of THE FUGITIVE's appeal was its existentialism, and the underplaying Janssen was excellent at projecting, as well as any television actor could, Kimble's internal anguish. Of course, in a novel, Fuller is able to expand on that, letting us know Kimble's thoughts and the paranoia that would invade any normal man after eight months of looking over his shoulder.

Short on bread, Kimble, posing as "James Lincoln," gets off a bus in Bisson, Arizona, where he takes a quick job as a bartender for nice owner Cleve Brown, who's having problems with the local unions (this subplot goes unresolved). Needing to stay under everyone's radar, especially the cops', Kimble nonetheless becomes reluctantly involved with fragile piano player Monica Welles, who's also a fugitive of sorts, on the run from her rich, abusive husband Mark, who has tracked Monica all the way to Arizona and sees Kimble as a romantic rival.

Roger Fuller was actually Don Tracy, whose 1934 novel CRISS-CROSS was the basis for a Burt Lancaster movie. You can find out more about Tracy from Bill Crider here. Fuller/Tracy also wrote BURKE'S LAW and THE DEFENDERS tie-in novels that I'll soon be getting to.