Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: THREE BAD MEN: JOHN FORD, JOHN WAYNE, WARD BOND (2013, Scott Allen Nollen)

I'm a longtime fan of John Ford (who isn't, really?), the patron-saint of Monument Valley, born-again Irishman, and director of some of the best-constructed, most thoughtful films to come out of Hollywood, from THE INFORMER to THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE to THE QUIET MAN to THE GRAPES OF WRATH.
John Wayne is, so to speak, John Wayne, though his work frequently transcends the "movie star" mold with a dancer's grace and a touch of madness like in Ford's THE SEARCHERS, Hawks' RED RIVER, and Siegel's THE SHOOTIST.
Then, there's Ward Bond: a character actor extraordinaire who played brutes and cowpokes and priests and boxers across more than two hundred films.  Though his supporting work with Ford and Wayne is why he's included in this trio, my soft spot for him will always be his one and only shot at top-billing in 1942's HITLER: DEAD OR ALIVE, a film that clearly inspired INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and contains the fabulous spectacle of Ward slapping the shit out of Hitler himself ...before proceeding to force-shave off his mustache! 

Anyway, I just finished reading Scott Allen Nollen's in-depth examination of the lives and work of these three cinematic giants, and I highly recommend it as a fascinating study for burgeoning old-Hollywood aficionados and serious fans of cinema alike.  Chronologically tracing the intertwining lives of these three "good-bad men" who were not unlike the characters in their films (Ford directed Bond and Wayne in nearly thirty pictures each), Nollen is at once objective and affectionate in his analysis, and there's a wealth of source material including documents, letters, telegrams, and plenty of rare photographs.  There are riveting anecdotes (I may now actually be inspired to read Harry Carey, Jr.'s autobiography), some great yarn-spinning (including tales of Ward Bond's brutish, high-flying, indecent-exposing, Wile E. Coyote-style antics and his ruining of a key scene in THE SEARCHERS when he unplugged the camera to plug in his electric razor!), and the work definitely touches on their peccadillos and absurdities, though never salaciously.

It's deftly written and never dry; while many books of this kind become bogged down by academic posturing, Nollen remains true to the spirit of his subjects and opts for a two-fisted, no bullshit approach.  I really appreciate how deeply he throws himself into the work, freely admitting "a meaningful (though a bit one-sided) conversation with a tombstone or two."  He's as a film writer should be– intense, obsessive, and highly-focused; reverent without succumbing to hollow adulation.

The main drive of the work is the examination of the complex personal and working relationship between the three (though large swaths of the book are dedicated to advancing the underrated Ward Bond to his rightful place in the pantheon).  None of these men could really be pinned down or branded with a particular stereotype– each had a volatile mix of id and ego (often sprinkled heavily with alcohol) that fused together to create a kind of perfect storm of filmic art. 
The complex psychology of Ford's relationships with the two men is indeed worthy of an entire volume– you see a strange kind of ownership emerge, resulting from Ford's "discovering" of the two actors.  This ownership was generally expressed in verbal (and often physical) sadism as Ford became master of his "whipping boys," something which may have even tied into his potential bisexuality:
"Ford loved John Wayne and Ward Bond, but his true sexual orientation wasn't something he would have discussed with them, or anyone else.  When it came to his own life and psyche, Pappy [Ford] avoided the truth, exaggerated, lied, or just didn't 'have any goddamn idea.'  The positive emotions he felt for his two favorite actors and whipping boys may have been the underlying cause of his negative, sadistic treatment of them (and himself); but even a lifetime of psychoanalysis may not have 'proved' anything."
Vindictive and controlling, Ford "froze out" Wayne for eight years when he appeared in a rival director's Western (Raoul Walsh's THE BIG TRAIL) and later, when Bond made serious forays into television (WAGON TRAIN) and Wayne tried to direct a picture of his own (THE ALAMO), Ford would sometimes install himself as a presence on set and attempt to undermine/co-opt the work therein.  These behaviors even extended beyond the trio– he punched out Henry Fonda (!) on MISTER ROBERTS and made cruel, deliberate use of alcohol to wring earth-shattering, hungover performances out of the likes of Victor McLaglen in THE INFORMER and Woody Strode in SERGEANT RUTLEDGE.

Though he reveals these men "warts and all," Nollen also paints a portrait of devoted friends and masterful artists whose lives and creative outlets meshed almost completely.  (For instance, despite the abuse, Ford chose Bond to play his own alter-ego in the deeply personal THE WINGS OF EAGLES.) 

Nollen takes on the accusations of racism in Ford's films, and reveals his struggle to show all sides despite the constraints of the system– especially evident in films like THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, and CHEYENNE AUTUMN.  He tackles the strange political spectrum of the men, too, with John Ford's patriotic progressivism, Wayne's conservatism, and Ward Bond's ultraconservatism (and yet it was Ford who took his camera overseas into the crucible of World War II while Wayne and Bond remained in Hollywood).  He doesn't shy away from Ward Bond's shameful behavior in the McCarthy era as a supporter of the blacklist:
"The social climbing Bond's ultimate political affront to Ford involved an invitation to a party he was throwing for Senator Joseph McCarthy.  His great mentor [Ford] simply answered, 'You can take your party and shove it.  I wouldn't meet that guy in a whorehouse.  He's a disgrace and a danger to our country.'"
Bond's involvement with the blacklist feels like a moral counterpoint to Ford's extensive work with the U.S. armed forces in World War II and beyond, and much attention here is paid to his military career (I learned that in North Africa a Nazi actually surrendered himself to John Ford!) 

Along the way, Nollen delves into a vast spectrum of material including Ford's relationship with his older brother Francis (mentor, actor, and silent film director), Ford's gleeful propensity for Chaucer/Shakespearean-style low comedy and his hilariously bizarre obsession with highlighting Ward Bond's "horse's ass" in shot compositions ("Although FORT APACHE is a serious examination of the mythology of the American West, it humorously can be branded Ford's 'ass-travaganza'").  Of particular interest to me were Ford's work with Victor McLaglen (whose performance in THE INFORMER is one of the greatest in filmdom), his direction of genius child actor and later genre-movie legend Roddy McDowall in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY,  Bond's artistic process as unofficial show-runner on WAGON TRAIN, and the compelling, touching latter-day friendship between Ford and Woody Strode– and the book certainly has some genuinely emotional, poignant moments as the three "good-bad" men's lives dwindle to a close.

In the end, it definitely gets you amped up to watch some John Ford films– I've probably seen at least two dozen or so at this point, but there's still scores more I need to get my hands on, and there's obviously some big gaps in my knowledge.  For instance, since I've read THREE BAD MEN, MISTER ROBERTS, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE, 3 GODFATHERS, and WAGON MASTER have now leapt to the forefront of my queue.

THREE BAD MEN is published by McFarland (Order line: 800-253-2187), ISBN 978-0-7864-5854-7

Friday, May 24, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... THE MACKINTOSH MAN

Only now does it occur to me...  that wonderfully pompous acting genius James Mason has admitted said pomposity, on camera.

It occurs during the final five minutes of John Huston's mostly-phoned-in, Paul-Newman-starring spy thriller THE MACKINTOSH MAN (with a screenplay adapted by Walter Hill!?), and I have to admit that the lines would work just as well, if not better, if he had said them immediately upon wrapping the shoot for his infamous Thunderbird commercial

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... EVA

Only now does it occur to me... that there are monsters out there, human monsters, and they're actively wasting the talents of Michael Ironside.

EVA is a laughably bad World War II movie with Merchant/Ivory pretensions that only succeeds in achieving the dramatic heights of a made-for-TV movie on the Hallmark Channel, replete with bad CGI.


It's sights are set at an epic war-torn romance á la CASABLANCA or GONE WITH THE WIND or THE ENGLISH PATIENT and it's trudging along pretty hideously and then– thank God! – Ironside.



He plays the titular character's disapproving uncle who has clearly only been given the direction to "be harsh aristocratic and mean and uncle-ly."  And by the way, that suit and tie does not appear to be period appropriate.

Then, out of the blue, they tell him to be rapey and incesty and uncle-ly:

And you know what– Ironside's trying, somewhat.  You can tell what he thinks of the movie, but he's runnin' it up that flagpole anyway.

Then, he's suddenly and ignominiously defeated via a candlestick and some meticulously choreographed community theater stage combat:

Whereupon he pops back up with panache and a Michael Myers-style re-entrance (with shades of VISITING HOURS):

Before being promptly shot down by the eponymous niece

a mere thirty-six minutes into the movie, thereby rendering the remainder of the film wholly unnecessary.  Oh, well!  Nice to see you anyway, Mr. Ironside.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Film Review: BUNNY O'HARE (1971, Gerd Oswald)

Stars: 1.5 of 5.
Running Time: 102 minutes.
Tag-line:  "ENJOY those Golden Years with the most profitable pension plan any sweet little mother ever devised!
Best one-liner:  "SCREW 'EM!"

"Heya, bud– you wanna see a terrible movie?"
–"Not particularly."
"How's about a terrible movie with Bette Davis?"
"How's about a terrible movie with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine?"

"Look at 'em smiling.  Come on."
"How's about a terrible movie with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine where they play geriatric bank robbers... who dress up as hippies and tool around on a motorcycle so as not to get caught?"

–"Alright, you win– now there's no way I'm not watching that."
"I thought so, you sick bastard."
–"So wait... what is this again?"
"It's a Samuel Z. Arkoff American International shit-storm that's so cheap and desperate and awful that despite the presence of major Hollywood stars from the Golden Era, it doesn't even feel like a 'real movie,' ever."
"Also, there's an overwhelming, zany harmonica-laden soundtrack and some chase sequences worthy of Benny Hill."

"Okay.  So imagine this:  Bette Davis plays an unappreciated older mother whose deadbeat kids are allowing the bank to foreclose on her home ("THIS IS MY HOUSE YOU CAN'T KNOCK IT DOWN!!!"),

only one of the dudes tearing her plumbing apart happens to be ex-bank robbing legend Ernest Borgnine, and so he and Ms. Bette strike up a December-December romance and vow revenge on the banks."

–"He's taking her toilet?"
"Yeah.  And did I mention that one of said deadbeat kids is played by the legendary John Astin, seen here wearing a wicked, rainbow-colored 70s smoking jacket?"

"It's anti-bank message is certainly admirable, and it really tries for a late 60s counter-culture vibe, but it simply can't escape the blockheaded 'geriatric BONNIE AND CLYDE' gimmickry."

–"Why am I supposed to be watching this?"
"Well, of course it all leads up to the emotionally satisfying and semi-nude payoff of Ernest Borgnine digging a bullet out of Bette Davis' shoulder."

–"Can I leave now?"
"No.  If you've come this far, you should at least stay for the finale, whereupon Bette hangs up on both of her needy children and utters the sheer poetry of...


And from the look of her expression afterward, I think it's pretty evident that this sentiment is simultaneously aimed at the filmmakers!"
–"Oh.  Uh, why am I here again?"
"I don't know.  Because we have no standards?"
–"Well apparently, neither do Davis and Borgnine."
"We all gotta eat, brother..."

 –Sean Gill

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... FIRE AND ICE

Only now does it occur to me... that Susan Tyrrell, one of the most fearless, talented, and outrageous performers of her (or any other) generation, is the voice of the evil Queen Juliana in Ralph Bakshi's outrageous, rotoscope-animated barbarian movie, FIRE AND ICE.

 ...and she absolutely sounds like she's drunk throughout, which is as it should be.

This film is basically the animated version of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and maybe the album cover to Rick James' THROWIN' DOWN:

 or maybe a twelve-year-old's daydream (...during a Robert Frost lecture?), and as such, is ridiculous.


But I suppose it's all worth it to hear Susan Tyrrell roar to the heavens in abject horror:


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... EMPIRE OF PASSION

Only now does it occur to me... that renowned Japanese arthouse maverick, shrimp tempura fan, and Criterion Collection favorite Nagisa Oshima (IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES, MERRY CHRISTMAS MR. LAWRENCE, BOY, TABOO, MAX MON AMOUR) was capable of deluxe, Lucio Fulci-style eye trauma.

WHAT?!  Look at that... individual blades of grass, dropped down a well by a ghost, plummeting downward, and impaling a woman's eyes.  Christ!  I feel like even a thousand Lucio Fulcis hammering away on a thousand typewriters for twenty years wouldn't have even come up with that one.

Umm...  Bravo?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Film Review: EYES OF LAURA MARS (1978, Irvin Kershner)

Stars: 3.5 of 5.
Running Time: 104 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Faye Dunaway (NETWORK, BONNIE & CLYDE), Tommy Lee Jones (ROLLING THUNDER, THE PARK IS MINE!), Raul Julia (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, STREET FIGHTER THE MOVIE), Rene Auberjonois (MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, THE LITTLE MERMAID), Brad Dourif (CHILD'S PLAY, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST), Darlanne Fluegel (BULLETPROOF, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.).  Written by John Carpenter and David Zelag Goodman (STRAW DOGS, LOGAN'S RUN), based on a story by John Carpenter.  Produced by Jon Peters (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, BATMAN, BATMAN RETURNS).  Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, PEE WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE).  Edited by Michael Kahn (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, JURASSIC PARK, TRUCK TURNER).  Featuring a soundtrack with selections by Barbara Streisand, Odyssey, KC & the Sunshine Band, Heatwave, and the Michael Zager Band.
Tag-line:  "You can't always believe what you see..."

In familiar, darkened alleyway:

"How about a New York City disco horror-thriller set in the world of high fashion, from the director of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and written by John Carpenter?"
–"Where do I sign up?!"
"Not so fast, buddy.  It's not quite as good as it sounds."
–"Aw, nuts."
"Well, don't despair, either– it strikes a middle ground."
–"So is it like a proto- HALLOWEEN?"
"Not really.  Carpy and 'Kersh (and co-writer David Zelag Goodman) have definitely taken a page from the giallo playbook on this one.  It's got some psychic phenomena, POV weirdness, and a lot of dreamy, Fulci/early Argento-esque setpieces.  It's got a bit of a sleaze factor to it that's very Eurotrash in flavor– or maybe that's just the 1970s."

–"Didn't you say "disco" earlier?"
"Hell yes, I did– this movie has caught a fever: disco fever.  It's the good old days, the popped collar and flared pants days, the studio 54 days, the gold lamé and mountains of cocaine days, the days when a pop song would have a radio edit that was three minutes, and then a full version that lasts for three hours, packed with harpsichord and oboe solos and all sorts of extraneous material."
–"You're exaggerating."
"Well, maybe, but the definite highlights of this film are the morbid high-fashion montage scenes, set to endless versions of classy disco classics like 'Let's All Chant (Your Body, My Body, Everybody Work Your Body)' by the Michael Zager Band and '(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty' by KC & the Sunshine Band–

which is to say hilariously insane 70s decadence intercut with supernatural danger and car wrecks and models wearing fanny packs and smacking each other with fur coats."

"Well, let me back up a little bit. Let me give you the background. Our hero is Faye Dunaway, who plays 'Laura Mars,' and she's definitely on the cusp of the mind-blowing melodramatic overselling of the MOMMIE DEAREST era.

She's a high-fashion photographer who's known for her macabre and controversial portraiture

but she's been having visions of her friends being murdered– murders that actually end up happening! Then she's confronted by the police with the fact that her photographs eerily mirror actual crime scenes that have been kept from the public."

–"Sounds kinda like a typical giallo.  So whodunit?"
"Like I'm going to tell you, bub.  But let's look at the rogue's gallery of supporting players.  We got a super-young Raul Julia as her drunken ex-husband and a born screw-up,

we got a delightfully intense Tommy Lee Jones as the detective helping to protect her (and a part-time shag-carpet love interest),

we got Rene Auberjonois (who I always just call Rene Aubergy-bergy-wah) as her delightfully fey manager, rocking well-coiffed 70s hair,

we even got Darlanne Flugel as a model-friend of Laura's,

an actress who later carved out a niche as "the female" throughout a ton of great testosterone-soaked 80s action flicks like BULLETPROOF and RUNNING SCARED and LOCKUP and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A."
–"That's cool.  I likes me some Darlanne Flug–"
"I'm not finished yet.  Last, and definitely not least, we got Brad Dourif."

–"Hot damn!"
"Yeah, he plays Laura's chauffeur, and as you can see, he has a hard time keeping his eyes on the road.

At one point, he says 'You tryin' to take me to fuckin' Bellevue or what?' and it's kind of amazing because there's definitely a touch of Billy Bibbit from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST to his performance here."
–"Looks like he's givin' it his all."
"Dourif never gives anything less.  Then, we even got Babs Streisand– sort of.  She sings the title theme without ever appearing in the film, which was a first for her.  It's because she was initially going to play Laura Mars.  She dropped out when it got too 'kinky,' which is to say, 'not kinky at all.'"
–"Well, what's the verdict?  Now I'm just confused."
"On the whole, it's not quite a lost Carpy gem, but kind of a classier precursor to Lucio Fulci's New York Trilogy (ZOMBIE, NEW YORK RIPPER, MANHATTAN BABY).  And hey– that's alright with me.  It's also allegedly the basis by which Lucas hired 'Kersh to do THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, so you might even call it the impetus for the best STAR WARS movie.  Three and a half stars."

–Sean Gill

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... THE LONGSHOT

Only now does it occur to me...  that in one of his films, Paul Bartel once slipped in a cameo appearance worthy of old 'Hitch himself!

THE LONGSHOT's not too great a movie– it's a Zany with a capital 'Z' 80s horse racing comedy that lacks the subtlety and mean streak of my favorite Bartels, like DEATH RACE 2000, EATING RAOUL, and SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN BEVERLY HILLS.  I'd put this one more on par with LUST IN THE DUST.

Anyway, Bartel pops up– uncredited and in silhouette, no less– for about ten seconds as a blind man wandering the race track,
thus cementing his Hitchcock-worthy auteur status.  Or something.

(Also, I can't resist mentioning a choice appearance by 80s über-nerd Eddie Deezen (CRITTERS 2, ZAPPED!, WARGAMES, PUNKY BREWSTER, SURF II, GREASE, HAPPY HOUR) as a parking attendant.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Only now does it occur to me... RANCHO NOTORIOUS

Only now does it occur to me...  that even within the confines of a 50s studio Western, Fritz Lang still found ways to work in Expressionistic flourish.

He always loved to "suggest" murder when possible, instead of showing it outright– a murdered child's balloon floating away or an assassinated man's derby rolling on the ground, for example.  Here, we get some pretty spectacular rigor mortis that (purposefully?) recalls the theatrical poster of M.

The film also stars Weimar and Hollywood legend Marlene Dietrich, pictured here in her native habitat:

Anyway, one particular scene features a near-cabaret-ish performance (not quite so sultry as the staging in her career-making BLUE ANGEL appearances)

and the outlaws gaze lustily toward her in a rapid piece of editing that feels less like something from a 1950s studio picture, and more like the insanely brilliant "Whore of Babylon" sequence from Lang's masterpiece, METROPOLIS.

Also of note, among the lecherous, gazing outlaws are George "SUPERMAN" Reeves
(sporting a wicked scar)

 and an exceptionally young Jack "ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST" Elam, who probably played a henchmen in more Western films and TV series than any of his contemporaries, except for maybe Ward Bond.
As for the film?  It's not precisely a "classic," but it's a pretty terrific revenge picture shaded with moral ambiguity– very much in the vein of an Anthony Mann or a Budd Boetteicher flick.