Saturday, July 20, 2013

Looking Back at The Sadist with Arch Hall Jr


As the demented Charlie Tibbs in The Sadist (1963), Arch Hall Jr turned in one of the wildest, most unforgettable portrayals of a killer in the history of exploitation movies. Yet, he wasn't director James Landis' first choice, and hadn't planned to be in the picture. Then again, Arch Hall Jr. had an easier time than most actors when it came to landing good roles - his father owned a production company.

Hall's father, the ubiquitous Arch Hall Sr,  had been on the fringes of Hollywood since the 1930s. After World War 2, Hall worked in various fields before starting Fairway International Pictures.  According to some, Hall Sr. was determined to make his son a star. Hall Jr, though, denies any such thing.

"I'd been around the business for years," Hall Jr told me in a recent interview. "I enjoyed helping my dad. It was natural for me to get involved, just as it would be for any son to take part in the family business."

The father-son duo started with typical teen-fare, including Ray Dennis Steckler’s Wild Guitar (1962), where Hall Jr played a gullible guitar picker lost in the big city.  While he didn't exactly possess movie star looks, Hall Jr was tall and had an impressive blond pompadour. He also had a likeable demeanor and looked comfortable behind the wheel of a hot rod, or strumming a guitar. The Sadist was a change of pace. This time  Hall Jr. traded his guitar for a pistol and put aside his nice guy image to play the murderous Charlie Tibbs.

As a dangerous noir character, Tibbs is sui generis. He’s a bug-eyed, oversized adolescent, barely fitting into his too small jeans and jacket. Tibbs' sheer youth and lack of remorse seem new and startling. He's not a bitter war vet, or a desperate escaped prisoner. He's just untamed, negative energy. In The Sadist, Tibbs and his child-like girlfriend Judy (Marilyn Manning) are holed up in a junk lot after murdering several people. Their hideaway is interrupted by a trio of schoolteachers whose car has broken down. Tibbs and Judy, when they aren't giggling like idiots or gorging themselves on soda pop and pie, subject the trio to mind games and torture.

The film is relentless. As described by authors John Cline and Robert Weiner   in 'From the Arthouse to the Grindhouse',  The Sadist, "stays in the same key throughout, alternating between dread and terror." The film's set piece is when Tibbs forces a teacher to his knees, and then promises that "School will be out," as soon as he finishes drinking a Coke. True to his word, Tibbs chugs slowly and loudly, the camera close in on his fat, puckered lips. Then, grinning stupidly, he fires a shot into the teacher's head. When the teacher slumps dead in the dust, Tibbs asks Judy to fetch him another soda. 
Tibbs was loosely based on Charles Starkweather, a James Dean wannabe who, along with teen girlfriend Carol Fugate, murdered 11 people during a two state killing spree. What sets Tibbs apart from other exploitation psychos is the affection he shows for Judy. We learn very little about Tibbs,  but we gather that Judy is his only human connection. When Judy is accidentally killed at the film's climax, Tibbs reacts by howling like a wounded animal. Tibbs' screams are from the gut, deep and shredded, a sound rarely caught on film. It’s harrowing.
Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who would earn his bones in several low-budget features before working with such directors as Robert Altman and Steven Spielberg (winning a Best Cinematography Oscar for Close Encounters of the Third Kind), worked like a dervish to make Tibbs seem iconic from the moment he hits the screen. One moment he’d film Hall Jr in extreme close-up, making him look like a colossus gazing down on us. Then he'd film him from a distance, as if the killer's mere existence is disjointed from everyone else’s. Many scenes are shot from behind the killer, the audience sharing his point of view down the barrel of his gun. Sometimes he's reflected in windows and mirrors, like a ghost.

At least 75 percent of the exploitation films of the era took place in dumps, carnivals, or strip joints, all convenient locations for guerrilla shooting. The setting of The Sadist - a wrecking yard of busted-out cars - falls right in line with those settings. Yet, the lot was more than an easy place to film. It was a canny reflection of America at the time, still prosperous after the war, but crumbling at the edges. Tibbs seems perfectly at home among the broken autos and spider webs.  This isn't Blackboard Jungle with poor kids reacting to their environment. Tibbs appears to have erupted directly out of the debris; he gives no more thought to the destruction he reeks than would a tornado. 

* * *

Arch Hall Jr. appeared in a few more films after The Sadist, but found himself disenchanted with the movie business.  Later in the '60s he "retired" from films to pursue his love of aviation. Now 69, Hall was very talkative in our recent conversation. He's opinionated, intelligent, and not one to suffer fools lightly. To my disappointment, he revealed that The Sadist hadn’t been filmed in an actual dump.

“It was private property,” Hall said. “We had the cars brought in. They were leaking oil all over the place. The ranch owner was very nice, but his wife was horrified that a bunch of Hollywood idiots were making a mess of their property. We promised to clean up, and we did.”

Some of the other subjects we covered included his friendship with exploitation director Ray Steckler, the last days of Fairway International,  and of course, his memorable role as Charlie Tibbs in The Sadist:

"I hadn’t planned to act in it. I was going to work on the sound crew. My dad was like a carny pitch guy; he brought up the possibility to Jim Landis that I could play Charlie Tibbs.

"Out of respect for my dad, Landis agreed to try me out. The only problem was that he’d had a New York actor in mind, a little wiry guy with a Charlie Manson look. Of course, this was years before Charles Manson, but that look would've worked.
“Jim was fascinated with my take. He and my dad talked it over. I’d never played a role like that, so the plan was for Jim Landis to tutor me. Then I was on the hook. The pressure was on. I wanted to please my dad, and of course, Jim was very serious about making this movie.
“We talked a little about Charles Starkweather, because he certainly influenced the movie, but we weren’t doing Starkweather's story. Landis wanted me to act like Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, but I hadn’t seen that movie. There were no videos or DVDs back then. So Landis had to really break down what he wanted me to do. One thing he did was make sure I wore that costume all the time; he wanted to immerse me in the role.
“Landis’ original screenplay was titled 12:01. That said, in addition to changing the title, there were many minor yet significant changes that came about over the course of a few late nights in my father’s upstairs office at the Fairway compound. There were nuance changes in dialogue, or scenes made on the fly while on location to better fit Vilmos, Landis, or the actors. Landis was open to listen, but if he rejected a proposed idea it was done firmly. He’d make it unmistakably clear that there was no room for appeal. The only exception would be if Vilmos became firmly against something, then Jim deferred to him. But he’d let Vilmos know in a joking yet serious manner that he was still not sold on it.

“Landis had been floundering, doing TV stuff. He wanted to make a breakout film that would bring him some recognition. He hoped The Sadist would be like Psycho, a Hitchcock type of movie, but with more impact. He didn’t want the audience to be mildly disturbed and then go out for dinner; he wanted to hit them upside the head with a two by four.

"The original cut was more violent. When one of the characters was shot, we created the effect by using lamb brains to splatter on the window glass. But a board of censors deemed we had gone too far, so that ended up in the cutting room. If we were just showing it for one night in some art theater, or in Europe, we'd get away with it. But for general release, we had to show it to censors and have it approved.

“As for my dad’s involvement, he really just wanted something for the pipeline, to say Fairway could do this sort of film. He'd been looking for something different, an exploitation type of thing, to show we were versatile. In a way, my dad thought it was just another film, but once we got involved, the movie created a vortex and sucked us in.
“Word got out at the MGM lab that we were doing something unusual. But even as this buzz was being created, nobody took it too seriously, not a film from Fairway. But to Landis, it was the most important thing in his life. My dad knew it was important to him, but because of the corrupt world of independent distributing, it was destined for drive-ins.
"The Sadist stands out for me. There were a lot of talented people working on it. It was my one attempt at being a serious actor. But you know who got more attention? My cousin, Helen Hovey, who played one of the school teachers. People thought she had a nice presence, especially for someone with no real acting experience. She never acted again. She married a very religious man, and I guess he didn't like the movie business.
"Ray Steckler was a hoofer. He could dance like Fred Astaire, tell jokes like Don Rickles, and he was a walking encyclopedia of film history. He could tell you things about Charlie Chaplin, or Panaflex cameras. He didn't let on how much he knew. It was scary how he smart he was. And in all of his films, there were little nuggets of brilliance, along with the stuff that looked like it came from a dumpster.
"Working with him was great. My dad liked him. Dad helped produce The Thrill Killers, and even had a bit part in it.  But Ray could be intense, relentless. We'd have to stop him sometimes and say, you know, there is such thing as a coffee break. He was so intense. We were filming a fight scene in Wild Guitar and I accidentally knocked his front teeth out. But rather than stop, he got some white gaffer's tape and some cotton balls, stuffed them in his mouth to look like his teeth, and said 'Let's keep going.'
"He didn't like working for other people. There were opportunities where Ray could've worked on bigger projects, but he didn't want other people telling him what to do. He'd rather be a big fish in a little pond. Ray and my dad were similar in that way. Few people know about this, but Ray even directed some porn while he lived in Las Vegas, just to make some money. He owned a couple of video stores, and they did alright, but he was always thinking about his next movie, dreaming about getting up to bat one more time and hitting a home run.
"I don't think he reached his potential. He could have been another Spielberg. But he had a furious temper; he could snap. If something didn't go right, or if someone walked into a shot, he'd snap. But he was an amazing guy, and very funny. He would have his ex-wife in his films, because he knew he could get her do the sickest stuff. He'd make faces to crack us up. But he could also play scary guys; he'd put on that hoodie and get that look in his eye. He really liked that character he created in The Thrill Killers.
"The last time I saw Ray was when he begged me to fly out to the LA screening of James Chressanthis's "No Subtitles Necessary,"(a documentary about cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond). I almost didn't go but changed my mind at the last minute. Knowing now if I had not gone, I would never have forgiven myself, because he died not long after. Here's the weird part - I went to bed thinking, 'How am I going to tell him I don't want to go to LA without sounding like a jerk?' That night I had a dream that my father told me to go LA with Ray. So I went and we had the greatest time. Ray was ill, but he spoke to the audience and within two minutes had them all laughing. He had that kind of charisma; he could bring the house down.
"The screening was on Nov. 12, 2008 at the L.A.C.M.A. I believe this was Ray’s last public appearance. Only a few hours after we had returned to the Hacienda Hotel near LAX, he was taken by ambulance to the Daniel-Freeman Hospital emergency room. He spent several days being stabilized before being driven back to Las Vegas. Then he made several trips to the E.R. in Las Vegas during the next few weeks. He didn’t pass away until Jan. 7, 2009.
"I remember calling and his wife picked up. They were in the emergency room. But I could hear Ray saying, 'Is that Arch? Let me talk to Arch!' He takes the phone and says, 'Arch, I have an idea for us. I'm going to send it to you.' I could overhear the doctors saying he shouldn't be on the phone. That was Ray; working right up until the end. He was a cool guy."
"The buzz of activity that had been the norm for the Fairway compound in Burbank faded into history. What remained was to package the films for sale to television. Later, after my dad's death, the rights were sold to a broker who sold them again to Rhino. Rhino's legal staff apparently failed to keep track of the copyright renewal and the films fell into public domain.
"I saw what the business had done to my dad. He'd done a lot of things. He'd been an actor, he'd been on stage with Louise Brooks, and he’d been a cowboy in real life and in films. He owned land, and he would borrow money against it to finance productions. He rarely had a partner. It was a family business. There was always some kind of trouble, either trouble raising money, or trouble with the teamsters. Sometimes there was friction between my dad and me, but he was my hero. It's true; I did a lot of things just to please my dad. But my leaving the business had nothing to do with the end of Fairway. That couldn't be further from the truth.
"My dad was up to his neck in debt. It didn't make sense. You'd go to a drive-in on Saturday night where one of our movies was playing. The place would be packed. Then the owner would have the gall to tell us nobody came, and he'd pay us $12.50. Then he'd say the print of the film was damaged and he'd charge us $26.00 to fix it. I remember my mother crying after opening some of these bills. But that's how crooked the business was back then. Dad would hire detectives to count the number of people in attendance, but the drive-in owners would just laugh at him.
“My dad loved the creative aspect, but he was no businessman. He was played out. He'd also got into this late in life, and his health was becoming a problem. He loved being around film people and doing cameos in their movies, and doing voice-over work, but all I could see were the heartaches and the problems. I thought it was time to press on and do something else. Most Hollywood people were idiots. I thought acting was far less interesting than flying jets and seeing the world."



A much longer version of this story appeared in Noir City, as "The Edge of Sleaze."

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