Category Archives: 1970s

Serpico (1973)

*. In 1971, at the end of Dirty Harry, SFPD Inspector Harry Callahan tosses his badge into a quarry pond. In 1973 NYPD Detective Frank Serpico rejects the badge of a detective’s gold shield, opting for (very) early retirement to Switzerland.
*. Two dramatic acts of abnegation from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Both Harry and Frank are disgusted with “the system,” but for very different reasons. Harry would, of course, be back, his fight against the system becoming a part of American mythology. But there would be no second act for Serpico, whose story had the uncomfortable distinction of being true. I have to think there’s some larger meaning to this.
*. I have to say I find Serpico a dull watch today, but that’s more because of its genre than its politics. The progressive-activist biopic is almost the definition of Oscar bait. Norma Rae. Silkwood. Erin Brockovich. Milk. All stories about little guys taking on the corrupt/racist/homophobic/capitalist system. And I think they’re stories that are worthy of telling. I just can’t imagine watching any of these movies twice.
*. Al Pacino in his heyday, just after The Godfather and just before The Godfather Part II and Dog Day Afternoon. He’s good here, if a little improbable. He looks so small, and one simply can’t credit him running down the bad guys on foot. Sidney Lumet was a last-minute replacement as director but Mr. New York City comes through, even if you have to grin at the way Serpico keeps arranging secret meetings at such conspicuous landmarks.
*. As with most of these biopic heroes, Serpico is a Christ figure. This is even more obvious because he’s undercover as a hippie so he even looks like a ’60s (or ’70s) Jesus. He’s also often wearing white, and the light on him is highlighted whereas the dirty cops are cast in shade. Actually, most of the supporting players are cast in shade. There’s some talent alongside Pacino but we don’t really notice them in such a one-man show. The women are so disposable they don’t even register. Though there’s no way he was going to let that magnificent sheepdog get away. He’s a keeper.
*. Everything looks dirty in that documentary-style grittiness that was, briefly, the style after The French Connection. And yet it’s not a movie that makes much of an impact today. Perhaps it’s too authentically of its time and place, meaning the pre-Disneyfied NYC. Fifty years later, bad cops are more likely to be exposed by cell phone footage than being outed by a whistleblower. I’m not sure if the medium has changed the message.

Deep Red (1975)

*. I’m sensitive, if mostly indifferent, to the fact that I don’t like a lot of the movies I talk about here. I think I may come off as overly negative. So it was with great pleasure that I sat down for a re-watch of Deep Red, one of my all-time favourites. This is a movie that, the first time I saw it, actually made me jump out of my chair in joy.
*. My jump came when Marcus (David Hemmings) registers that he saw something at an earlier point in the movie. This is referring to the “reveal,” and it is so brilliantly conceived and executed that I won’t ruin it for you here. Suffice to say that I saw what he saw. Since then I’ve introduced several other people to the movie but nobody else has got it on a first viewing, so this makes me feel even better.

*. I say the reveal is brilliantly conceived and executed and that’s something I’d echo for most of the script. Not that the story is anything special, though it is a well-tuned giallo that, surprisingly for the genre, has all the elements in place without involving us in any crazy jumps in logic. The red herrings are sensible and effectively registered, and it’s possible to be guessing at the killer’s identity up until the end, though I think it is still adequately prepared for and completely satisfying. Guillermo del Toro says that Deep Red “doesn’t make logical sense but it makes lyrical sense” in its rhyming of images, but I really think that shortchanges the plot, which I found to be pretty tight.
*. What I really like about the script though isn’t the story, or the dialogue, which is only serviceable most of the time and, given its being split between English and Italian, leads to some very odd subtitling on the DVD. A man saying “What, please?” is subtitled as “Sorry, what did you say? Could you repeat that please?” There are a lot of moments like this. The subtitles are barely an approximation of what are pretty flat lines.

*. No, what I mean when I say I love the script goes back to something I heard Robert Towne say in an interview once about how a great screenwriters sees the action. The dramatic and visual context is everything (I seem to remember Dan O’Bannon saying something similar, but I may be mistaken). Towne’s example is when, in Lawrence of Arabia, someone asks Lawrence what he loves about the desert and he looks about him and says “It’s clean.” That’s a line that takes some visual imagination.
*. Dario Argento (said to be “a director of incomparable incompetence,” in Vincent Canby’s sniffy review of Deep Red), along with his co-writer Bernardo Zapponi, have this visual instinct in spades. I think of the way they wanted to come up with murder scenes where we see injuries that the audience can relate to, so that instead of having victims stabbed or shot they have someone having their face stuck in boiling water, and another fellow having his open mouth smashed onto a mantelpiece. You can really feel that one!
*. The best example though comes when the psychic goes to open the door to her apartment and stops and screams before the hatchet comes crashing through it. Why? Because she’s a psychic! The scream comes before the jump scare because she senses what’s on the other side of the door. That’s worth a round of applause right there.

*. Another thing I love about Deep Red is its flagrant theatricality. The way the red curtains are drawn to reveal the psychic conference. The empty street that looks like it must be a set, complete with a bar copied from Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks,” complete with mannequins set up inside. This gives the proceedings the perfect blend of trash and art house. Karyn Kusama notes how Marcus’s instructions to his music students at the beginning sets the note for the rest of the film. They have to play jazz trashier. There’s just no cleaning it up.
*. Trashy, violent, and funny too. The reversal of gender roles between Marcus and Gianna (Daria Nicolodi) makes a cute motif, from their arm-wrestling to his being miniaturized by the broken seat in her car. This also serves a dramatic purpose, as despite being the male hero he is vulnerable throughout. As the police like to needle him, he doesn’t even have a real job.

*. Its influence has had a long reach. The psychic conference may have been the inspiration for the mentalist showdown at the beginning of Scanners. Billy the Puppet from the Saw franchise was apparently taken from the mannequin that makes a weird entrance here. And John Carpenter was definitely drawing, consciously or not, from Goblin’s score for his Halloween theme. Less notably, the girl being drowned in a scalding bath in Halloween II was also a steal, or homage.
*. Yes, you’ll probably want to be a fan of the genre to fully appreciate it. But this is the Citizen Kane of gialli and I think it’s a wonderful entertainment in its own right, put across with talent and verve in every department. Everyone has their own list of favourite movies, mixing undisputed classics in with idiosyncratic picks. Deep Red is a title I’d group with the latter, but it still makes my top 10.

The Cat and the Canary (1978)

*. There’s always a question when producing a new version of an old classic as to whether you want to bring it fully up-to-date or keep it in its original setting, with or without a dose of irony.
*. The Cat and the Canary started out as a play by John Willard in 1922. Since then it’s been filmed several times, beginning with Paul Leni’s 1927 silent version. This 1978 version is set in 1934, and the date helps give it more the air of an Agatha Christie mystery then I think the source originally had. This isn’t a surprise, since the success of recent Christie adaptations, like Death on the Nile, was apparently part of the film’s inspiration. This sort of thing was experiencing a bit of a renaissance, as evidenced not only with the Christie adaptations but such other Old Dark House mystery-comedies as Murder by Death, Clue, and House of the Long Shadows.
*. This was actually the fourth or fifth direct film adaptation of Willard’s play, but it hadn’t been done in forty years (the last version being the 1939 Bob Hope and Paulette Godard vehicle). I’m not sure what the aim was. It doesn’t try that hard for either laughs or thrills. The director, Radley Metzger, is a hard to pin down figure, known for adult-oriented/softcore erotic films while at the same time maintaining an art-house reputation. But there’s nothing sexy about this movie, despite all of the potential.
*. An interesting cast with nowhere to go. Still, it’s charming in its way, I think mainly because of the familiarity of the story. Plus it’s nice seeing some of the old faces. Edward Fox really takes the opportunity to ham it up. Wilfrid Hyde-White’s default setting was hammy, and he’s obviously enjoying himself. Olivia Hussey is funny as Honor Blackman’s wide-eyed gal pal.
*. Only a week after watching it, sitting down to write out the notes I’d made, I found I’d forgotten it almost completely. It’s that kind of movie. A bit like one of Christie’s less strenuous “entertainments,” and not really of its own time, or any other.

The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 (1979)

*. I said in my notes on Airport ’77 that it was probably the best of the Airport movies, but not the “best” if you mean the most fun. You have to grade these films on a reverse or ironic curve. Vincent Canby put this very well with regard to this last chapter in the Airport saga: “The Concorde . . . Airport ’79 is — how should I put it? — not the best of the series, but to say that it’s the worst is to convey the wrong impression. In this case, worst is best.”
*. All of the Airport movies were described as being silly, but The Concorde takes silliness to all new levels, without quite having the sense that it was all meant as a joke. When audiences responded with laughter it was actually marketed in some places as an action-comedy (“Fasten your seatbelts, the thrills are terrific . . .and so are the laughs!”), but aside from the odd funny bit I don’t think most of this was intended. It’s just a hilariously bad movie.
*. Most of the key elements are still in place. There’s a sick kid and a cute kid. There’s a plane full of stars, though they were really down to the B-list of celebs by this point. Alain Delon still looks boyish, but also somehow older than he actually was at the time of filming. Sylvia Kristel is the sexy stewardess/captain’s love interest and Jimmie Walker provides the musical interludes with his saxophone. Charo is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Robert Wagner plays, you guessed it, the heel. Sybil Danning. Eddie Albert. You get the picture. About all you really need to know is that George Kennedy’s Patroni has, by dint of hanging around for all four movies, finally advanced into the lead role. This is his franchise now!
*. No that is not Kent Brockman reading the television news! It’s Harry Shearer. Sounding like Kent Brockman.
*. It’s a minor thing –Shearer’s voice work isn’t even credited — but that news broadcast is worth highlighting as a prime example of the clichéd silliness of The Concorde. We’re familiar with the idea of a news broadcast presenting us essential information in a condensed form, sort of like the spinning headlines in the 1940s. So we’re used to characters just turning on the TV and immediately catching us up to date on everything we need to know to better understand what’s going on in the movie we’re watching. That’s the cliché.
*. Here it’s taken to an extreme. The first news story tells us that the Concorde has arrived in the U.S. This is followed by a story about a new “highly secret” anti-aircraft attack drone being tested by Harrison Industries. Hm. Could these two stories be related? But wait! “In a related story” we learn that Dr. Kevin Harrison has been named Man of the Year by some science foundation. I wonder how he’s connected to all of this! And then wrapping things up there’s a quick profile on a gymnast who is a member of the Russian Olympic Team, who just happen to be traveling on the Concorde! Indeed, the journalist who narrates the story is the secret lover of the gymnast being profiled, and they’ll be flying on the plane together. Wow. There’s a whole menu of plot elements introduced in just a few minutes.

*. The Concorde is thick with this kind of badness. Take the casual bromance between Kennedy’s Patroni and Delon. These are manly men. When they ask Kristel to bring them their coffee black she sighs “Oh, you pilots are such men!” To which Patroni cleverly replies “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey!” Groan. The sexual innuendo, if that is what we can call it, has not aged well.
*. There’s worse, as Kennedy’s wife has died so Delon sets him up with a prostitute in their Paris layover so he can get his mojo back. Meanwhile, Delon can finally bring himself to express his love for Kristel. Oh, you pilots are such men!
*. It’s typical of the dialogue in bad movies to be not just groanworthy, but to skate upon the absurd or mystifying. My favourite moment in the film is when Kennedy tells Delon that he’s going to “go back and check the passengers” after the jet suffers a massive decompression incident and is in the process of falling apart in mid air. I don’t know why the hell Patroni would feel a need to leave the cockpit at such a moment to do such a pointless task, but Delon simply mutters “Yeah.” It’s a moment of pure weirdness that I can’t really explain.
*. Or try making sense of the journalist giving play-by-play into her tape recorder as the jet is about to crash into the ocean: “We’re diving straight down! There’s so much fear! Oh dear Lord, please help us! Oh God no, it’s the last thing we knew! Oh God no, please no! We’re going into the ocean! Oh no!” There’s so much fear? It’s the last thing we knew? What is she going on about?
*. So it’s ridiculous. Not just the plot, and the dialogue, and the effects, and the business with Kennedy firing a flare pistol out the window of the jet to distract a missile, but every single thing about it. It may even rank as the worst Airport ever. Which means it’s also the best.
*. On Sneak Previews an exasperated Gene Siskel was driven to say “I don’t think as critics we go to these Airport movies any more to criticize them so much as to endure them.” But that’s not how I felt watching this again (and I have to confess here that I saw The Concorde in a theatre during its initial release). In fact, I thought it was a lot of fun. These movies are all different shades of awful — one of the most remarkable things about seeing them altogether is seeing how wide a cultural arc was travelled in the decade of the ’70s — but none of them are dull or unwatchable, even (or especially) today. For a four-film franchise that’s actually quite a mark of distinction. After this, however, there was clearly nowhere else for them to go but for belly laughs.

Airport ’77 (1977)

*. A movie with a lot of baggage. Too much baggage. I say that because the basic story here is pretty good. A trio of thieves plan on using gas to knock out the passengers and crew on a luxury airliner, thus allowing them to fly to South America with a cargo of priceless paintings by old masters. They might have gotten away with it, but entering the Bermuda Triangle (remember when that was a thing? it was in the 1970s) they clip an oil platform, sending them into the ocean. With the fuselage intact everyone survives, but they’re running out of air and the plane is springing leaks.
*. Good fun! But then there’s the baggage I mentioned. What I was referring to is the baggage that comes with this being an Airport movie. So the cast is stuffed with stars who have little to do but show their faces so the audience can say “Isn’t that Joseph Cotten?” Or “How old do you think Olivia de Havilland is?” Then there are the little Airport in-flight amenities. There’s a song, sung by a blind guy who falls in love at first whatever with Kathleen Quinlan. There’s a cute kid, and another kid whose life is in danger. There’s a couple falling out (Christopher Lee and Lee Grant), and another couple in love (plane captain Jack Lemmon and Brenda Vaccaro). And yes, good ol’ Joe Patroni also puts in an appearance. I can’t see where he does anything at all, but, you know, they don’t call these things “Patronis” for nothing.
*. I don’t think Airport ’77 needed any of this. As I began by saying, it actually has a pretty good premise and probably would have worked better without all of these distractions. But Airport had become a franchise, which meant including all of the elements that, I guess, audiences had come to expect.
*. Our star among the stars this time out is Jack Lemmon. At first blush that might seem a falling off coming from rugged action heroes like Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston, but Lemmon, who I’ve always thought underrated, is a better actor than either of those guys and he helps this movie out considerably. Just look at that glare he shoots at Lee Grant when she starts blaming him for everything that’s gone wrong. And if he needs any muscle to back him up, he’s got Vacarro to lay Grant out with a right hook.
*. How do we know it’s a luxury jet? Does the fact that it has an onboard library not impress you? Or the fact that the airline owner’s message is recorded on LaserDisc? Or the deep-pile rug even on the stairways? Well how about this then: the main lounge has table-top video games installed so you can play Atari’s Pong at 35,000 feet! Now that’s luxury, ’77 style!
*. Watching Airport ’77 I was struck by how it may be the best movie of the bunch, but it’s not as much fun as the first two. Parts of it are dated, and other parts are just plain bad, but it’s not dated or bad enough to be wholly enjoyable as camp. It is, however, a decent enough disaster thriller for its day, and passes the time better than most.

Airport 1975 (1974)

*. In my notes on Airport I mentioned how it was the originator of the spate of all-star disaster epics that dominated the box office in the 1970s (and which saw Earthquake, also starring Charlton Heston and George Kennedy, released the same year as this picture), but that the disaster in that movie was incidental to the sort of show it was. In fact, Van Heflin looking to blow up the plane to collect an insurance policy wasn’t even a bad guy. At the time terrorists weren’t as readily available as all-purpose plot devices for screenwriters.
*. Well, Airport 1975 puts the disaster back in disaster movie. Despite all the trappings of a prestige picture, resulting in its ten Oscar nominations, I don’t think anyone thought Airport was a great movie. But with Airport 1975 we have a bona fide mega-turkey. From epic to epically bad can be one small step. And with just the slightest of tweaks the next small step would result in Airplane!
*. “Inspired by the Film ‘Airport’ Based on the Novel by Arthur Hailey.” What an odd credit. At least it seems odd to me. Is it to be read sequentially, so that the film Airport was based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, and then this film based on that film? I think so, as this movie has nothing to do with the novel. Nor would either of the next two movies, which would have the same credit. But what do any of these sequels have to do with Hailey’s novel, aside from being about planes in danger? You might as well say Passenger 57, Die Hard 2, Executive Decision, and Snakes on a Plane were based on or inspired by Airport. I guess the (only recurring) character of Patroni is Hailey’s, but they didn’t need to keep him for any of the sequels.
*. So Airport 1975 is bad. Pauline Kael went to town on it, calling it, among other things, “cut-rate swill” and “processed schlock”: “produced on a TV-movie budget by mercenary businessmen” (is there any other kind?). Actually it was originally conceived of as a TV-movie, and had a correspondingly low budget, though I don’t hold that against it. I actually thought the air-to-air transfer scene was pretty good for what you might expect in the mid-70s. But if you do come to it with an eye for small-screen talent to fill in the gaps between the stars you’ll see plenty of familiar faces: Jerry Stiller, Sid Caesar, Norman Fell, Erik Estrada. This does add to the TV-movie flavour.
*. As for Chuck Heston, I already mentioned how low he seemed to have fallen in The Omega Man (1971). This is no worse. And he was only 17 years older than Karen Black, which was less of an age gap than for the couples in Airport. Aristotle, who thought the ideal marriageable age was 37 for men and 18 for women, would have split the difference.
*. As I said in my notes on Children of the Corn: The Gathering: “Oh, Karen Black. To have gone from Five Easy Pieces and Nashville to this (and House of 1000 Corpses still to come).” What an odd career. I mean, this turkey actually came out a year before Nashville. Still, when you look at her filmography she’s always kept working. I salute her again.
*. Critics took a lot of shots at Black’s character. I don’t think she’s totally helpless, and probably handles herself as well as, or better than, I would have in such a situation. I only laughed when she tells the control tower “A piece of wreckage fell onto the radio panel,” temporarily disabling it. It didn’t just fall. She dropped it. And I don’t know why she was messing around with it in the first place.
*. But so bad it’s good? Kael again: “One can have a fairly good time laughing at it, but it doesn’t sit too well as a joke, because the people on the screen are being humiliated.” I think she might have been feeling some sympathy for Gloria Swanson, whose last film this was to be. I don’t know. Swanson looks like she was enjoying herself, and apparently wrote her own lines. There are worse ways to go (if not worse movies to go in). I felt sorrier for Jimmy Stewart in Airport ’77, and he wasn’t even in the plane that ends up underwater.
*. So to ask again: so bad it’s good? It’s listed not just among The Fifty Worst Films of All Time but also in The 100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made by Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson. I can go along with this. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned Helen Reddy singing to Linda Blair. Truly, there is still much to be savored here for the connoisseur of awfulness, even a half-century later. And for that I believe some credit is due.

Airport (1970)

*. With the hindsight of half a century, is it OK to enjoy Airport now?
*. I don’t mean “Can we laugh at it?” People thought it was ridiculous and laughed at it in 1970. It didn’t need Airplane! ten years (and three sequels) later to make fun of it.
*. Nor do I mean that only now can we see it as badly dated. This was, again, something noticed by everyone at the time. Judith Crist called it “the best film of 1944.” Pauline Kael dismissed it as “bland entertainment of the old school: every stereotyped action is followed by a stereotyped reaction — clichés commenting on clichés.” Variety‘s review saw it as “a handsome, often dramatically involving $10 million epitaph to a bygone brand of filmmaking.” Charles Champlin described it as “breath-taking in its celebration of anything which used to work when Hollywood was younger and we were all more innocent.” You get the point. We’re not more sophisticated today than we were then.
*. But the reviewers who saw Airport as a throwback were on to something. Today I think it’s most often seen as the beginning of the spate of disaster movies that were so popular throughout the 1970s. The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno being two of its more famous offspring. But really it’s a movie that I think does look back.

*. It has the feel of earlier times for many reasons. It was Van Heflin’s last film. It was the final score by Alfred Newman. There were apparently 23 Oscars among the cast and crew, which gives the proceedings a kind of Hall of Fame feel (Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for her role as Ada Quonsett, coming nearly forty years after her first). There isn’t a single interesting style note, unless you’re impressed by the use of a split screen every damn time there’s a telephone call. The cast is all white, and the leading men all of a certain vintage, the names of their characters betokening varieties of ethnic masculinity: Mel Bakersfeld, Vernon Demerest, and Patroni (no first name required, he’s the troubleshooter and “They don’t call them emergencies anymore. They call them Patronis.”). Their love interests, meanwhile, are 25 years younger. As was customary in this golden age.
*. If you really want whiplash though, compare Jean Seberg as she’s done up here in the height of Edith Head’s “Airport style” to what she looked like in Breathless ten years earlier. Don’t be afraid to cry. Let it all out. I’ll wait.
*. What it’s all a throwback to, it seems to me, is the kind of melodrama that Douglas Sirk popularized in the 1950s (think Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind). Airport is nominally about multiple crises at a busy Chicago airport but it’s really a soap opera. Based on a bestseller by Arthur Hailey that might have established the genre of airport novel, it gives us a bunch of stock characters in an overripe drama where the setting takes a backseat to all the usual shenanigans. Shenanigans that come at us with dialogue like that delivered by Captain Demerest the Horny Pilot (played by Dean Martin) to the sexy stewardess (Jacqueline Bissett): “You get me up to full throttle then throw me into reverse. You could damage my engine that way!”

*. Alas, Captain Demerest has put a bun in her oven, which leads to the Abortion Talk:

Why didn’t you tell me this before?
I tried. But we were in a hurry and . . .
You’re sure?
Do you mean am I sure I’m pregnant, or am I sure you’re the father?
Come on, Gwen. I didn’t . . .
The answer to both questions is yes.
You know I wasn’t asking.
You have a perfect right to. I want you to know something, Vern. That there hasn’t been anyone else but you. You see, there couldn’t be. I happen to love you. I’m afraid I was careless. I stopped taking the pills because they were making me gain weight. So instead of being plump, I’m pregnant. Stop twisting your wedding ring. I know you’ve got a wife. I know you can’t marry me. I knew it in the beginning. I won’t make things difficult for you.

*. Just as fluffy as the Abortion Talk is the Divorce Talk. This takes place between airport manager Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) and his wife:

We don’t have a home anymore. We have a waiting room, a place where I can walk the floor, wondering whether you’re going to leave this damn airport long enough to drop by for a few minutes.
Why did you have to pick tonight to come out here and fight with me . . .
I came here to tell you that Roberta [their daughter] left home.
What do you mean left home? When?
I called from the banquet to say goodnight, and I spoke to Libby. Roberta, she said, told her that she couldn’t stand our fighting anymore. That she couldn’t stand the “atmosphere of hate.” And that’s a direct quote.
Where is she? Did Libby say?
She’s at Sally Bolton’s house. She’s going to spend the night there. I spoke to her.
Cindy, we can’t do this to the kids. We’ve got to call a truce, even if it’s a pretense. We’ve got to start being civil to each other.
And add hypocrisy to the problem? They’d see through that in a minute. That’s not the answer.
Well we’ve got to do something.
You’re right, and the only answer is a divorce.
You think that will make them feel more secure? A broken home?
It’s better to come from a broken home than to live in one.

*. I’ve quoted all this at length because I think it gets at the real charm of Airport. As I say, this is what the movie is really all about. And I think it’s the kind of thing Roger Ebert might have been responding to when he began his review by saying “On some dumb fundamental level, Airport kept me interested for a couple of hours. I can’t quite remember why.” Well, this is why. It’s a soap formula and on the most basic, perhaps even subconscious level that stuff works.
*. So if we can all enjoy Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind today not just as camp but as representing a certain kind of story told a certain way then I think we can do the same for Airport. I can’t write it off, as Lancaster did, as “the worst piece of junk ever made.” In fact I was surprised at how much I liked it. I especially got a kick out of how the stupid passengers screw up the bomb scenario not once but twice. They all deserved to die.
*. Meanwhile, with the template that had been established, could they do it all again? Given the box office they were certainly going to try!

Impulse (1974)

*. Wow. How does a movie with William Shatner playing a psycho killer manage to be this dull? Even with the mid-’70s decor and fashion on display Impulse still fails to provide any real entertainment value for connoisseurs of camp or crap. I know a lot of people consider this to be a classic of the so-bad-it’s-good genre but I was bored out of my mind. What went wrong?
*. William Grefé. That’s basically the answer. Grefé was one of those ultra-low budget exploitation directors who have later been discovered as auteurs by later generations of dumpster-diving film fanatics. Their work can often be seen on DVDs put out by the Something Weird Video people, which is a big help because they’re a lot more fun to watch with the commentary than they are with the regular audio track.
*. Impulse is not Grefé’s worst movie. It may even be his best. It’s just that I don’t imagine there’s that big a gap between the two. It’s another cheap, quickly filmed piece of crap, only without quite so many leering booty shots. In fact, there’s even a bit of self-regarding humour in this regard with some dialogue and camera work during the hot dog scene. That was a plus.
*. There is, however, a respectable attempt at a story. Shatner is a ladies man who cons women out of their money before killing them. He targets a lonely single mom whose irritating daughter, who spends a lot of time mooning over her father’s grave, is the only one who knows what’s really going on. But nobody believes her. Hitchcock might have made something out of this. In fact I think he did.
*. This is not Hitchcock. Hitch wouldn’t have stood for a mess like this. Harold Sakata, Goldfinger‘s Oddjob and a total non-actor, is thrown into the mix and then killed off (almost for real, as there was some mix-up with the stunt where Shatner tries to hang him that almost led to Sakata’s death). There’s a historical prologue that’s presumably meant to show where Shatner’s character went off the rails, but it just seemed pointless to me. I think “Matt Stone” would be scarier if he were a little more self-possessed.
*. I put “Matt Stone” in quotation marks because it’s such a stock name it can’t be real. And given the kind of character Shatner is playing it probably isn’t.
*. Yes, Shatner’s performance is hammy and occasionally funny, though it’s not that far removed from Richard Burton or Oliver Reed over-emoting on one of their bad days. Matt Stone’s wardrobe also helps. I think it might have even been weird by the standards of Florida in the ’70s, and it never ceases to surprise with each costume change.
*. This is important because, let’s face it, the only reason you’re watching a movie like this is to laugh at it. But while Shatner does his bit I really didn’t find this to be a great bad movie. There were a couple of scenes I got a chuckle out of but that was it. The rest of the time I was just bored and not paying much attention.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

*. I didn’t like this movie much at all, and I find its status among critics a bit surprising. I think this is probably because it’s seen as representative of a style of gritty independent filmmaking that we now identify as a golden age in American cinema. This despite the fact that it wasn’t really an independent film (it was a Paramount production) and cost quite a bit to make, mainly due to Elaine May wanting to shoot an enormous amount of film (reportedly over a million feet). It’s one of those movies that only looks cheap.
*. Then there’s the story of how it was taken out of May’s hands by the studio, which had the effect of making May into a martyr for her art on the order of Orson Welles with Touch of Evil. But again I’m not sure she was the real victim here. From what I can gather, and from watching her approved version, she may have been behaving unreasonably and Paramount were only trying to cut their losses.

*. We open with gangster Nick (John Cassavetes) sweating it out in a hotel room and I’m only thinking one thing: where is Norman Mailer? Isn’t this the same room we were stuck in for all of Wild 90? I only partly jest. There is a lot of the same feel as in Mailer’s little movie here, from the sense of seeing tough guys behind the scenes to the repetitive and inane dialogue that sounds improvised. In fact I think some of it was improvised, as Mays just let her actors go with a scene. There’s a basic premise, and obvious structural motifs (the nighttime journey through a kind of underworld, including a trip to a cemetery, and the way the film begins and ends with Mike and Nick hammering on different doors), but within these parameters things just seem to wander from one set piece to another, none of them connected to much of a narrative spine.
*. In brief, I don’t think it’s a particularly original story, or presented in a very compelling way. As I’ve already noted, it looks cheap, in terms of everything from the lighting to the choppy editing. And I want to be clear I’m not talking about deliberately abrupt editing but shots that simply don’t match up.
*. The two leads, Cassavetes and Peter Falk, often get a lot of credit but I thought the former guilty of overacting and the latter miscast. This is a shame since I think the character of Mike is the only interesting thing in the movie. I wanted to know more about him, what it was that made him turn from being a lifelong sidekick and schmuck to finally going after his revenge. But he’s just left up in the air. Given that he’s made his break with Nick before the film starts it’s a movie about betrayal where the betrayal has already taken place, which means his character doesn’t travel any kind of arc. Does he feel guilty at the end? Why?

*. Does May bring any new perspective to the table as a woman? Yes, according to the essays on the film I’ve read, but I find her vision of “toxic masculinity” little different from what you get in other gangster/buddy movies, and the female characters are all left pretty vapid and vague. There’s the hooker and then there are the wives. I don’t get the sense of any new take on gender relations here.
*. I wonder how May wanted us to see the ending. It strikes me as being comic, what with Nick trying to wave off Beatty’s assassin while whining to Mike about how he’s getting a perforated ulcer. This is ridiculous, and I assume intentionally so. But is the film a comedy? Not in my book.
*. So it’s not a favourite. As far as such pictures go I found it both overdrawn and underwhelming. Though filmed in 1973 it wasn’t released until 1976, the same year Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie came out, which I like a lot more and which I suspect cost a lot less to make. Mikey and Nicky is definitely worth seeing, but I don’t cut it as much slack as others do. It is representative of a certain style and period, but I don’t think it’s first-rate in any department.

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

*. Terror of Mechagodzilla is one of the most direct sequels in the Godzilla canon, with the action picking up right where Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla signed off. As things get started a submarine is looking for the remains of Mechagodzilla and finds a new monster named Titanosaurus instead. Titanosaurus is, in turn, being controlled by a mad scientist who looks like a Japanese Colonel Sanders and who is in cahoots with the bad guys from the Third Planet of the Black Hole.
*. Given how much I liked Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. And to be sure it has some highlights. For example, I liked hearing Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla (Main Theme) again. Remarkably, it hadn’t been used since Gojira.
*. Titanosaurus didn’t become a fan favourite (I think this may have been his only appearance, making him this film’s King Caesar) but I think he looks fine, even if his elephant-trumpeting is only slightly less annoying than the racket made by Gabara in All Monsters Attack.
*. Best of all are the fight scenes between the three heavyweights, culminating in Godzilla charging at Mechagodzilla while eating everything the giant robot throws at him. The Big G’s not going to let any of those fancy bells and whistles stop him now! It’s ass-kicking time!
*. And yet I didn’t care for this movie that much. Nor, I should add, did fans. It had the lowest box office of any Godzilla film thus far so Toho figured it was time to move on from the franchise, making this the last film from the monster’s Showa era (which is how they reckon these things).

*. I think it may be that the story just doesn’t come together well enough. Sure it’s loopy and weird in the usual way, but there’s just too much going on. Godzilla doesn’t even show up until quite late in the day, and Titanosaur, whose super power is basically waving his tail and making a wind storm like Rodan does with his wings, has to carry most of the first part of the movie. Then there’s the crowded human story, which involves not only the scientist and the aliens but the scientist’s daughter, who is a cyborg connected, somehow, to Mechagodzilla’s brain.
*. Bottom line: not a bad entry, but I can understand why, even without the box office declining, Toho wanted to take a break. They were clearly nearing a point of creative exhaustion that matched the audience growing tired of seeing the same thing all the time. Even the screenplay here was based on a script that won a Godzilla story-writing contest, which is as clear an indication as you can get that Toho was beyond running dry at this point.