Tuesday, July 30, 2013

THE MISSOURI BREAKS (1976)


LOOKING BACK AT THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY















Few could fail like Brando.  His failures were like unrealized epics: unsatisfying, but fascinating. One keeps watching, worrying, mulling, hoping that somehow the pieces of his performance can be reassembled and understood. Maybe, one thinks, he is so far ahead of most actors that we missed something the first time. But in The Missouri Breaks, Marlon Brando's turn as the gregarious Robert E. Lee Clayton was more than a failure. It was disturbing.  Time’s Richard Schickel wrote that Brando’s performance "does not suffer from an excess of discipline. Indeed, it is fair to say that it is gaudy and disruptive…"
 
The Missouri Breaks is the one that got away, the one that should’ve soared but didn’t. The blame usually falls on Brando.  Yet, his interpretation of an eccentric contract killer was actually quite bold and interesting. Brando decided Clayton was insane, driven mad by a kind of prairie fever; he'd convey this by speaking with different accents, dressing like a woman,  even pretending to be a priest.  Unfortunately, as innovative as Brando’s acting choices were, they felt out of place in an American western and were too strange for audiences of the time.  The New York Times' Vincent Canby described Brando's performance as "out of control."

           
 
 
Was Brando, as some believed, trying to upstage his younger co-star Jack Nicholson? Was Brando trying to spice his scenes up because he didn't  have faith in the script?  Was he being indulged by director Arthur Penn, an old friend who had directed him once in the 1960s? Or was his performance actually a great one, attacked unduly by critics who'd grown tired of Brando the "movie star."
 
By Penn's own admission, The Missouri Breaks was doomed from the start.  “I don’t really know what I was doing making the film,” Penn said shortly after the film was released. “It was like passionless sex.” In a 1976 interview with Claire Clouzot of the French publication Ecran, Penn shed light on how the  project materialized:
 
 "It's something that can only happen in Hollywood.  Elliot Kastner, a producer in the true sense of the word, sent me Thomas McGuane's script, which I  really liked, but at the time I wasn't really in the mood to make another film. He sent the script to Brando, then to Nicholson, and all three of us had the same reaction: interesting, but not filmable.  Kastner, who can be quite unrelenting, came to see each one of us, and asked me if I'd do the film if Brando did it. When I said yes, he went to see Nicholson and asked him if he'd do the film if Brando and Penn did it. And so on. A deal was struck that said each of us would do the film only if the other two were on board, and everyone agreed. We weren't actually interested in the film so much as working with each other. This probably isn't the best reason to embark on such a massive project. To tell you the truth,  I don't really know why I made The Missouri Breaks."
 


There were problems. The script was wordy and needed trimming. McGuane was out of the country when filming started, so  Robert Towne was brought in as a script doctor.  Nicholson,who had done a little scriptwriting during the 1960s, also offered ideas for the screenplay. Nicholson, though, had other issues.

Nicholson had agreed to do the project for several reasons, including the chance to work with Brando. For one, he'd just finished One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, which was a taxing film for all involved. He wanted an  easy role that wouldn't involve a lot of method acting. He'd enjoyed doing westerns a decade earlier when he was a struggling actor, and he liked the role he would play in The Missouri Breaks, that of Tom Logan. However, he  wasn't comfortable with Kathleen Lloyd, a young actress cast in the film as his love interest. Worse, Brando was obviously not taking the film seriously. After Brando's monstrous comeback roles in The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, he was content to coast. 

There were  rumors that Nicholson was bothered by Brando's reliance on cue cards, and the way Brando had an assistant feed him his lines through an ear piece.  (Depending on different sources, Penn either fueled these rumors, or dismissed them.) Nicholson did go on record saying, "Marlon's still the greatest actor in the world, so why does he need those Goddamned cue cards?" 

Meanwhile, Brando dickered over his contract and didn't show up for his first day of filming.

"The ground quaked for weeks before he arrived," Nicholson said, although he added, perhaps for the sake of the press, that Brando was "exceedingly co-operative" and "gentle as a lamb."  Later, according to Nicholson biographer Marc Eliot, Brando lounged around the set in a yellow bathrobe, was argumentive with Penn, and threw an angry fit one afternoon when a young Chinese girl he met at a local restaraunt wasn't allowed on the set to watch him. It gradually became clear to everyone on the set that Brando was only there for the payday - he'd wrangled a deal that would bring him 11- percent of the film's gross, and some estimates have him making around $16-million for The Missouri Breaks, most of which went towards his pipe dream of turning his home in Tahiti into an island resort.

There were also reports that animals were injured or killed during the production, drawing the wrath of the American Humane Association. Finally, there were rumors that the film went over budget. Penn derided the reporters who started those rumors, saying they were doing it build their cases against Brando. "You should have seen them," Penn told Clouzot. "Some really acted like idiots."  Penn did what he could, trying to lengthen scenes where Nicholson and Brando appeared together, hoping to create some drama between the two heavyweights. He'd let them improvise, hoping they'd create some magic. Brando, seemingly pleased with the way things were going, stayed long after he was needed on location and even hosted the final day's wrap party.

 
Somehow, the completed film ambled out for the public's inspection in May, 1976.  The story concerned Tom Logan (Nicholson), leader of a gang of rustlers in the 1880s whose friend was killed by a local landowner named Braxton (John McLiam). Logan and his crew retaliate by killing one of Braxton's friends. Braxton responds by hiring  Clayton (Brando), a notorious contract killer to patrol his land and kill rustlers on sight. Clayton, armed with a Creedmoor rifle and some homemade weapons, picks off several of Logan's gang, sometimes torturing or taunting them beforehand. Logan, who has fallen in love with Braxton's daughter, is left to deal with Clayton's mind games until the film's brief, bloody climax.  Once Tom Logan has dispensed with Clayton ("What woke you up is              ), he encounters Braxton, who pulls a gun on him. Logan is quicker, and shoots Braxton dead. The ending, with Logan shooting a bedridden Braxton, was added to the film by Nicholson, Penn, and Towne.  McGuane was never happy with it.

Despite his misgivings about the movie, Penn managed to create something large and multi-layered, a loose metaphor for the dangers of colonization. He later admitted the film would probably be difficult for Americans. Brando biographer Stefan Kenfer wrote, "There were a few instances where Penn realized his objective," particularly when the unspoiled landscape "gradually turns to an outreach of Hell, animated by vengeance and littered with corpses."

Penn had done his job. He couldn't have imagined the backlash on the horizon.

                                                                 * * *

The premiere took place at the World Theater in Billings, Montana, not far from the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains where much of the film had been shot. The event was a champagne gala organized by local Shriners, featuring an 'Oriental' band, folks dressed as cowboys, local politicians, some actors from the film, and a choir from the local junior high school. But once all the booze had been guzzled and the two hour and six minute feature had played out, there was a sense that the film wasn't what the locals had expected. The premiere crowd of 472 cheered when Nicholson or Brando made their first appearances on screen, but the Billings reporter covering the event noted that, despite plenty of "good old red-blooded Montana violence," some viewers fell asleep.  Others seemed confused as to why the two stars hadn't flown in for the event (Brando was in the Philippines shooting Apocalypse Now; Nicholson was preparing to direct Going South). 

Two days later,  The Billings Gazette said the movie was "worth seeing," but was also "a disappointment...flawed by the one-upmanship of its principal stars..."

Worse was to come. Reviewers apparently took as much offense at Brando's body as they did his odd acting. John Simon appeared to lead the charge in skewering Brando, calling him, "utterly lamentable...even more slatternly and self-indulgent than his bloated physique."  "Marlon Brando at 52 has the  sloppy belly of a 62-year-old," reported The Sun, "the white hair of a 72-year-old, and the total lack of discipline of a precocious 12-year-old."   The Oakland Tribune gave cinematographer  Michael Butler kudos for providing "a burnished golden glow  across the fields and into the cabins," but called the movie  "such a bizarre western that it almost defies description." The Tribune's reviewer added that "Brando gives the impression that he sprawled through the wall from the movie next door."  The San Mateo Times called it "the freak show of the year," and "a paradoxical bummer." David Dugas of the United Press  described The Missouri Breaks as a "third rate and thoroughly nasty picture."

It wasn't all negative. Some critics appreciated the film's unusual nature, and some felt Michael Butler's cinematography was enough to give it a good grade.  

 
There is much to like about The Missouri Breaks. Randy Quaid and Harry Dean Stanton are exceptional as Nicholson's sidekicks.  The film also made an effort at period realism, namely in the darkness of the bunkhouse scenes, the men talking to each other with only candles to light their rooms. McGuane's script, while unwieldy,  featured some exquisite dialog, such as when one of Logan's crew complains during a trip north, "The closer you get to Canada, the more things'll eat your horse."

And of course, there was Brando.
 
Brando rides in for his first scene like professional wrestling's version of a gunman, a white buckskin jacket fitted snugly across his massive shoulders, his hair long and unruly. The rustlers comment on how he  sweet he smells; he's the meanest regulator in the land, as presented by Gorgeous George.  And it's easy to enjoy watching Brando enjoy himself. He's having so much fun playing such a strange, despicable character that you can almost feel him giggling between scenes, dreaming up his next move. He may be going down wrong paths, but he's pushing his horse at full gallop all the way.

Still, the movie's most generous supporters could understand why it landed with such a thud.

Too much anticipation: The film featured two of the best actors of the era, and a director who had helmed such classics as The Miracle Worker, Bonnie and Clyde, and Little Big Man. Audiences and the press were expecting something major. United Artists had boldly predicted a box office gross of approximately 50-million dollars based solely on the drawing power of Brando and Nicholson. The final result was closer to 14. It performed respectably, but was no blockbuster. At the year's end, Variety listed it as one of the year's "pretentious, self-conscious flops."

An uneven tone: The first several scenes are quite serious. Then, abruptly,  we get a slapstick train robbery with a lot of yee-haw silliness. Other scenes of Logan's gang horsing around break up the film's mood. Nicholson's love scenes with Lloyd didn't amount to much, either. Nicholson would say later that the film created friction between himself and Penn. "I told him I didn't like his picture," Nicholson told Cosmopolitan in 1976, describing the film as "very out of balance...The movie could've been saved in the cutting room, but nobody listened."

It was too soon after One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: The filming of The Missouri Breaks began before One Flew Over The Cuckoo's nest was released. By the time Penn finished, Cuckoo's Nest had become a cultural touchstone, and Nicholson had picked up the first Academy Award of his career. Cuckoo's Nest was actually still in theaters when Missouri Breaks was released (some theaters featured both films), which meant Nicholson was inadvertently competing with himself. Not surprisingly, Cuckoo's Nest won out.

Nicholsen didn't help matters a week before the film opened when he blabbed during an appearance at UCLA that he didn't the think The Missouri Breaks was any good. His comments appeared in the UCLA paper, and spread throughout the film industry. Then, sensing trouble at the box office, Nicholson sold back 5-percent of his eventual gross to producer Kastner for a million dollars; Kastner agreed to pay, but  never came forth with the money, resulting in Nicholson filing a lawsuit to recover his payments.
 
 Audiences weren't sure who to root for:  There are no clearly delineated good guys and bad guys here. While dispensing with traditional heroes and villains creates a more sophisticated movie, try telling that to audiences looking for an old fashioned shoot 'em up.  Nicholson, ostensibly the 'hero' of the pic, is sort of a callous jerk as Logan. Brando is weird as Clayton. No wonder 1970's audiences were put off.

Anti-Brando feelings were in the air: The press had been slowly picking at Brando for years. His aloofness, his politics, and his reclusive nature, had made him an easy target. This was compounded by his growing salary per film, and growing legends about his bizarre behavior. One rumor that spread on the set of The Missouri Breaks was that he plucked a live frog out of a pond, bit into it, and then hurled the bloody remains back into the water. The world's best actor, it seemed, had gone nuts.  Penn, though, felt the press' attacks on Brando were unfair.
 
 "The American press is always running him down," Penn told Clouzot, "but he's a great actor and a true professional." Penn felt The Missouri Breaks flopped not because of Brando, but because, "The American public isn't ready for a film that doesn't have a big shootout at the end."  

Nicholson, too, remained enamored of his co-star. Some have speculated that there was tension between them - even though they were neighbors, they weren't close (Brando once called the police because a party at Nicholson's had gotten too loud) - and some wondered if Brando resented Nicholson being hailed as "the new Brando." Brando toyed with the press on the matter, telling that he didn't think Nicholson was very bright, and that Robert De Niro was a better actor. At other times he said, with a straight face, that he and Nicholson were lovers.  For Brando, the movie business had become a joke, and one suspects Nicholson, eventually, was in on it. Nicholson would eventually invest in more than one of Brando's money-making schemes, including a process known as "photovoltrolysis," which would use solar power to break down water into hydrogen to power automobile engines.   Indeed, Nicholson even spoke of a project he wanted to direct that he hoped would star Brando, a project called  Moontrap that never saw fruition.

"There's no one before or since like Marlon Brando," Nicholson once said. "The gift was enormous and flawless, like (Pablo Picasso). Brando was a genius who was the beginning and end of his own revolution....You didn't rush him. He had a tremendous gift just in his stillness. I was in high school when I saw The Wild One. (1953). He changed my life forever...a monumental artist....There was no way to follow in his footsteps. He was just too large and just too far out of sight. He truly shook the world, and his influence will be there long into the future."
 
 
 
Upon Penn's death in 2010, critic David Kehr referred to The Missouri Breaks as "a surreal western with moments of brilliance but a meandering tone."  That's fair. But I often imagine a different cut of The Missouri Breaks, one with the comedy and love scenes taken out, leaving behind a dark, mean western that would clock in at around and hour forty-five. 
 
 If Brando's performance did a disservice to The Missouri Breaks, if he, as The Times noted, "had no apparent connection to the movie around him," he was inadvertently creating a new type of villain that would begin appearing a decade later. Brando's influence could be seen in Dennis Hopper's crazed performance in Blue Velvet (1986), Anthony Hopkins' turn in Silence of The Lambs (1990), John Malkovich's in In The Line of Fire (1993),  practically every Batman and James Bond villain to come, and even the overly talkative characters in the films of Quentin Tarantino. Critics couldn't see it at the time, but Brando had created something enduring in The Missouri Breaks. He'd created a blueprint for two generations of eccentric movie killers.

Failure? All failures should be so fascinating.

 

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.
ON RAY DENNIS STECKLER
"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."
ON LEAVING THE BUSINESS
"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."


Friday, July 19, 2013

New Ripley Bio Is a Curiosity


Robert Ripley: The modern Marco Polo?




 
 
 


 
 
 
 
 
 
Midway through Robert Ripley's career, he felt he'd gone too far into the world of grotesques. He'd started as a sports cartoonist, after all. Now he was showcasing people who drove nails into their heads. One of his associates  suggested Ripley increase the freakish part of his show, explaining that "the public likes to suffer."
 
Ripley understood. The rest, as we learn in  Neal Thompson's exhausting new book 'A Curious Man,' was history.

Ripley's Believe it or Not! was a newspaper staple for decades. I remember those beautiful renderings of strange people, odd facts, and strange tics of nature. I remember the monks with 29-inch fingernails, the men with horns growing from their skuls, and the swamis who hadn't spoken in decades.  This illustrated feature became part of the public lexicon and made its creator a wealthy man. During the Depression of the 1930s, when Americans didn't have a dime to go to the movies, they could open a newspaper and see Ripley's oddities. Through Ripley's cartoons, people saw the unusual, and were able to visit, if only for a few seconds, mysterious, far-flung places. Several Ripley museums have been established around the world in recent years, including one in New York's Times Square. The emphasis is less on the exotic, more on the grotesque. Apparently, people still like to suffer.

Ripley was a world traveler, and a collector of the weird, the wacky, the hard to explain. His newspaper success lead to his own programs on  radio, and then, briefly before his death in 1948, a weekly television series. Ripley was also a rowdy drunk who partied with some of the biggest names of the Roaring Twenties, from Jack Dempsey to Babe Ruth. Between his partying, his extensive traveling schedule, and his 24/7 dedication to drawing his daily cartoons, Ripley burned himself out. He was dead at 59.
 

The author  jams home the fact that Ripley did enough living for 20 men, recounting his every trip, every purchase, every exploration, every fit of anger, every drunken binge. Unfortunately, as busy as Ripley was during his life, there wasn't much drama to report.  Of course, there are wars and earthquakes and various other events that effected Ripley's business and travel plans, but he's always at the edge of these things, never directly involved. The most we hear about is some bad weather, some problems at customs, and a certain rascality that came with being a wealthy man who could have any woman he wanted, usually two at a time.  But while Ripley may have thought of himself as an Indiana Jones type, in actuality he was a bit of a doofus. That, as much as anything else, seems to be what attracted  Thompson  to the subject.

The author spends an awful lot of time writing about Ripley's clumsiness as a young man. Thompson tries to present Ripley's story as an old-fashioned, All-American tale of an impoverished   kid who used his talents to became a superstar in his field. Thompson is particularly fascinated by Ripley's "unfortunate set of protruding and misaligned front teeth, a crooked jumble that practically tumbled from his mouth." Thompson plays amateur psychologist, suggesting Ripley's ugly mouth made him sympathize with underdogs and people who were different. There may be something to that, but it doesn't quite explain Ripley's fascination with shrunken heads and Asian women.
 

Thompson  also points out, with nauseating consistency,  Ripley's  canny understanding of what the public wanted. He credits Ripley with foreshadowing such "pop-culture phenomena" as YouTube, reality TV, Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, Oprah, The Amazing Race, River Monsters, and Jackass. Granted, I'd like to go back in time and kill Ripley to prevent him from inspiring those shows, but Thompson has a point: Ripley foreshadowed the ridiculous world we live in today.  

Unfortunately, Thompson doesn't  expand on the book's underlying theme, which is the public's vicarious interest in masochism and suffering. Why, exactly, does anyone  want to watch people drive rusty nails into their eyeballs, or set their earlobes on fire? Is it just wonderment at how much punishment the human body can take? Or is it the same impulse that causes us to stare at highway accidents?  


Like most biographies, 'A Curious Man' is at its best at the beginning and the end. I liked the young Ripley, the awkward kid struggling to establish himself in the new world of cartooning before stumbling onto his million dollar gimmick. I also liked the young Ripley as he struggled in San Francisco, wandering through Chinatown where restaurant owners kept him alive by feeding him scraps. It was during these hard times that Ripley developed his love for the Chinese culture.

 
Late period Ripley is interesting, too. Overweight and sickly, his temper out of control, Ripley suffered a series of strokes during his last year. That he produced 13 episodes of his television show while his heart was failing is a testament to his determination. He was so ill he nearly died during his final NBC broadcast, which might have been a fitting way out for him.
 
But in between his poor boy's rise and the bloated excess of his later days, there wasn't much to Ripley's story.  He traveled.  He bought stuff. He slept with his secretaries.  His favorite female companion died young, and this apparently sent Ripley into a long, downward spiral. Still, Thompson can't quite create empathy for Ripley. The man tended to solve problems by throwing money at them, and when people needed him, he was likely to sail off to Shanghai to buy some masks.


Ripley with cannibal friend


Ripley played his part to the hilt, often dressing in the clothes of an explorer, and telling interviewers that he was probably a reincarnated Chinese warlord. Thompson does a good job capturing Ripley's evolution from shy cartoonist to grandstanding, slightly drunken showman.  But Thompson spends  too much time apologizing for what he interprets as Ripley's chauvinism and political incorrectness. Most readers are smart enough to know that a man in 1920 might say something that wouldn't ring right today. Then again, if  Thompson  didn't spend so much time on Ripley's bad teeth and political incorrectness, the book would've been 40 pages long.

Thompson obviously reveres Ripley. He researched every inch of the man's life. In a way, Thompson has become Ripley, and Ripley has become the freak on display.   As Thompson says at the book's conclusion, Ripley "may have been the most unbelievable oddity of all."
 
Perhaps, but reading about Ripley is a bit like staring at a shrunken head. It's fun for a while, but ultimately there's not much to it.
 



Sunday, July 14, 2013

THE LAST DETAIL (1973)


At one point in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail, Jack Nicholson's character drinks a toast to Superman, Batman, and The Human Torch.  In 1973, such a toast had an entirely different meaning than it would in 2013. Those comic book characters have come to symbolize the bloated  movies of modern times, the extravaganzas that ask nothing of audiences but to sit still and be beaten into numbness with  special effects. Forty years ago, though, they represented something else: nostalgia. As  Billy "Bad Ass" Buddusky reminisces, one can see this rough navy man as a child, whiling away a  summer afternoon with a comic book in his lap.  Comics have changed. Movies have changed. I'm not concerned about comics, but I sure as hell wish there were more movies like The Last Detail.

Nicholson was on an incredible winning streak at the time of The Last Detail. He'd already been in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, while Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest were just ahead of him. What made Buddusky slightly different from other Nicholson characters of the era was that he was not a rebel per se; he was a navy man deeply enmeshed in the system. Although he referred to the Norfolk base as "shit city," Buddusky proudly called himself a lifer. Buddusky and another lifer named "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young ), are assigned to bring young Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid, in a role that almost went to John Travolta) up the East Coast to a naval prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  Of course, Buddusky isn't above bending the rules - he suggests to Mule that they run the kid to jail in two days and use the rest of the time as a holiday. But when Buddusky learns that Meadows earned eight years for stealing a measly 40 dollars from a charity box, he begins to question the very system that has housed him for so long.  Rather than take the kid directly to jail, Buddusky decides to show him a good time.  And in Buddusky's world, that means beer, prostitutes, and fist fights.

Movies skewering  the military were fashionable in the early 1970s. MASH was the biggy, and Catch 22 tried like hell, and Slaughterhouse Five deserves an honorable mention, but The Last Detail may have been the best of the lot.  It was a road movie with saucy language and slapstick violence. At times it had the simple forward motion of an Italian neo-realist film of the '40s. It was comical, but there was always  the glum knowledge that Meadows was on his way to jail.  Mule, the  pragmatic one of the group, suggests they shouldn't let Meadows have too much fun because he's about to lose his freedom. Is it kind or cruel to buy him beer and get him laid right before he goes to prison? Buddusky doesn't know, but soon Mule is enjoying Buddusky's madness, too.

Their adventures are small at first. They take Meadows to diners where they teach him to return food if it's not prepared to his liking. They take him ice skating. They bring him to his mother's house, but she's not home. They look in the house and see bottles strewn around the living room, old negligees tossed haphazardly over the couch. They check into a hotel, where Buddusky teaches Meadows navy hand signals, and then  tries goading him into a fight. "Haven't you ever wanted to bite a guy's ear off," Buddusky asks, "just for the hell of it?" Buddusky tries to inspire Meadows by trashing the hotel room, but Meadows isn't a fighter. He's morose, a chronic shoplifter prone to fits of crying.  Mule suspects the kid might be crazy. At times, the scenes play out as if Buddusky and Mule are the parents of an overgrown and not terribly bright child. 

Their journey brings them to New York and then Boston. They eat sausages and drink beer, and even crash a group meeting of Buddhist chanters. Meadows is fascinated by the   "nom yo ho renge kyo"  chant and even lands an invitation to a    Greenwich Village pot party.  "Pull up your socks and grab your cocks," he tells Buddusky and Mule, "We're going to a party!"  One of the movie's delights is watching Meadows grow bolder.

It's at the party where we begin to see Buddusky in a different light. He's delusional. He thinks the ladies like him, but they yawn during his stories of the sea. He makes goofy comments about how his uniform flatters his penis (it's one of the few ad libs in the movie; Ashby encouraged the actors to stay with Robert Towne's tight script) and suddenly, it dawns on us that Buddusky is not a charismatic anti-hero, but a loudmouthed runt.  Still, the more pathetic Buddusky seems, the more Nicholson shines.

Nicholson is a kinetic marvel in this movie.  Much shorter than his tall co-stars, Nicholson is constantly jumping as if trying to see eye to eye with them. According to Nick Dawson's excellent biography of Hal Ashby, Nicholson would look into his viewfinder before each scene to get an idea of how much playing space he had to work with. Then he charged into each scene like a rocket. After the film's most glorious set piece, where he verbally assaults a bartender ("I am the fucking Shore Patrol, motherfucker!"), he leaps into the air, propelling himself skyward, as if the world he lives in cannot contain his anarchic energy. Either that, or he's trying to fly like the Human Torch.

Ashby initially feared that Nicholson was overacting. "It just felt too big," Ashby said of Nicholson's manic energy. "But when I looked at it, it wasn't." Allowing Nicholson freedom to play the role as he wanted resulted in one of the great turns of Nicholson's career. Nicholson even slipped in sight gags: he drinks a milkshake and gives himself a milk mustache; at the party his drunken eyes follow a swinging light bulb like he's hypnotized, and at one point he describes the joys of cunnilingus by yodeling. He even turns a simple scene of combing his hair and mustache into an almost Chaplinesque tour de force. He also has a way with swearing that sounds natural. He swears, not like an actor in a movie, but like a sailor.

Still, many scenes end with Buddusky starting trouble and then running away, laughing. He's a middle-aged man with the soul of a street punk; Navy life hasn't matured him, but kept him at approximately 18 years of age.  For all of  his talk about porn and sex, he's clumsy around women and does nothing at the whore house. And for all of his toughness, he's not a particularly good fighter (he favors the cheap shot from behind). Finally, for all of his outlandish threats,  the only person he beats up in the film is the oafish Meadows.


When Meadows tries to escape at the film's climax, Buddusky pistol whips him. It's an ugly scene. Mule has to pull Buddusky off; we later see that Meadow's head has been cracked open. I used to think Buddusky's anger came out because Meadows had betrayed him. There's also the conventional thinking that Buddusky feared getting in trouble if Meadows escaped. Either way,  Buddusky's feelings about Meadows are complex. At times he glares at him with disdain. Yet,  in one of the film's best moments, Buddusky nearly cries, thinking about Meadows in jail where the grunts will kick the shit out of him. There isn't much that separates Buddusky and Meadows. They're both outsiders; both are doomed.

In Darryl Ponicson's novel, Buddusky is a former teacher, a reader of Camus, a closet intellect who only joined the navy to get away from his family, and because he was told he could retire at 38. Towne's screenplay does away with such backstory. Towne also scrapped the book's maudlin ending, which has Buddusky killed in a fight.  Towne and Ashby agreed that Buddusky's death would seem heavyhanded in their movie. Nicholson, of course, would die in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and win an Oscar in the process.

Ashby's ending sees Buddusky and Mulhall take Meadows to the prison and then part ways.  The two sailors seem cold and alone as they walk away from the prison.  Buddusky says something about spending a day in New York before heading back to Norfolk. One pictures Buddusky wandering around Manhattan, taking in a peep show, maybe losing the rest of his traveling money on a game of darts, not caring too much because  no matter how bad things get,  shit city awaits.

Ashby (1929-1988) had been an Oscar winning editor before becoming a director. The darkly humorous  Harold and Maude (1971) established him as a force in the new Hollywood, and it was Nicholson who suggested him for The Last Detail. The script had been kicking around Hollywood since 1969, but studio executives objected to the foul language. Even when the film was wrapped,Columbia studio heads    asked Ashby to cut 26 lines (Ashby refused). The film turned out to be a hit, both critically and financially. Ashby's hunch was correct; people accepted the foul language as proper for the sailors' environment. Still, some felt Columbia held back from promoting the film because of the vulgar talk, and that the studio's reluctance prevented The Last Detail from being an even bigger success. In  the next few years Ashby would direct several  classics, including ShampooBeing There, and Coming Home. But like many of the characters in his films, Ashby was an outsider.  Despite his successes, he spent his final years arguing with studio heads and having projects taken away. Hollywood, Ashby found out, was as rigid and unbending as the military.

Nicholson, Quaid, and Towne  received Academy Award nominations. Cinematographer Michael Chapman, who helped create the film's bleak, wintry look, deserved one, too. Otis Young (1932-2001) is an overlooked actor, but his work as Mule was a key part of this movie's success.  He was caught between the more showy performances of Nicholson and Quaid, but he portrayed Mule as a different type of navy lifer, one whose mother brags about his travels, one who doesn't want Buddusky's behaviour to screw up his tenure. Young pulls off the difficult task for any actor,  by standing up to Nicholson in several scenes and still remaining likable.

There's a scene where Mule and Buddusky discuss their nicknames. Both came about because people couldn't pronounce their last names. Mulhall became "Mule." Buddusky became "Bad-Ass."  Buddusky thinks his nickname is laughable, but after a scene where he pulls a gun on a bartender, Meadows says, "You really are a bad ass." Buddusky answers, "Damn right I am." In shit city, having a nickname like "Bad Ass" is almost as good as being a comic book hero.

Friday, July 5, 2013

THE GREY FOX (1982)

A Film By Phillip Borsos
Review by Don L. Stradley
 

Richard Farnsworth: The Grey Fox
 
In 1983 a Boston Phoenix reviewer wrote of Phillip Borsos' The Grey Fox, "It will make you feel as if you're seeing a train for the first time." I was so enamored of the line, and the accompanying photo of Richard Farnsworth, that I clipped it from the Arts section and carried it around for years. I kept it in the front cover of Carl Sifakis' Encyclopedia of American Crime. That seemed like a good place for it.

The clip grew brown and ragged, but I wouldn't part with it. Farnsworth looked too good, dressed up in his best Sunday duds, leaning against a fence and smirking. The smirk worked on two levels:  he was smirking because he was playing Bill Miner, the last of the great train robbers, the man credited with inventing the phrase "Hands up," and also because he was Richard Farnsworth, a veteran stuntman and bit player who was finally getting noticed as an actor.

I also kept the review because it reminded me of when The Grey Fox hit our local Charles Cinema during the rainy summer months of 1983. I saw it three or four times, always coming out of that cinema and stepping into grim weather, enjoying the rain and wind, trying to maintain the feel of  the muddy Canadian countryside I'd just seen on the screen.
 
Few films have hit me the way The Grey Fox did. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, perhaps, or Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. I remember being moved by Robert Duvall's stoic performance in Tomorrow; I  remember feeling transformed during a Scorsese triple feature at the old Harvard Square Cinema, back before the place was heated and before they got the mice out. The Grey Fox, though,  edges them all by a whisker.   
 

Farnsworth was the key. He was 61 at the time, but looked older because of his long white mustache and weathered face. He had a regal bearing, but was also on a familiar basis with danger. There's a scene in a saloon where a punk pulls a knife on him; Farnsworth smashes a bottle on the kid's face.  "You come at me again," he says, aiming his pistol, "and I'll put a window through your forehead, so help me."  He had a gentle, reedy voice, and he spoke slowly, as if he was nudging you. He knew better than you did, and if you wanted to come along, fine.  If not, as he says in the movie, "A professional never begs."
 
When we first see Miner, he's coming out of the darkness of a cell, having been imprisoned for 33 years. He licks his lips nervously, as if he can taste the daylight.  Early in the film, after trying to find some legitimate work, he goes to a newfangled moving picture show. The feature: The Great Train Robbery. He's mesmerized. He licks his lips again.  
 
Borsos and screenwriter John Hunter cover the classic western theme of an aging character trying to deal with the changing world. Along with moving pictures, there are now automobiles, silly, fragile contraptions with buffoonish drivers. The steam locomotives look like unholy monoliths. And women are coming into their own. Miner meets Kate (Jackie Burroughs) a progressive lady who golfs and takes photographs, which must've seemed like a novelty at the time.   Miner wants to stick to robbing stagecoaches, but a man doesn't spend 33 years in the hole without learning to adapt.
 
When Miner does get around to robbing a train, Borsos creates a cinematic event. The rocky British Columbia countryside,  the smoke billowing out of the train, The Chieftains' bright, powerful music on the soundtrack, add up to something at once elegant and potent. Some moments in The Grey Fox are as stirring as the opening scene of William Wyler's The Big Country (1958), where a lone Pony Express rider pounds across the plains accompanied by Jerome Moross' exuberant score. 

The train heists are businesslike. Miner has a couple of helpers, including a nervous sidekick named Shorty ( Wayne Robson), but he does most of the work himself. The men don't kid around, they don't act macho; there are are no one liners, no jokes. There isn't even much action, just men going about their job.  We get no cliched scenes of robbers basking in piles of money. Miner doesn't even seem particularly thrilled by criminal life. When some thug tells him he's starting a gang, Miner feigns interest. "Like Jesse James?" Miner says, playing along. The glamour of crime means nothing to him.


 
 Borsos had originally wanted Harry Dean Stanton for the role of Bill Miner. Stanton bore a resemblance to the real Miner, but would've lacked Farnsworth's ease and elan. Watch Farnsworth dancing with Kate in a gazebo, and later as they lay in bed together, relaxing in each other's company, or the way he politely tells a gun dealer that he wants something "with a little more heft." Farnsworth had never had a leading role, but he'd been around movies for more than 30 years. He'd learned something along the way, something about being calm and relaxed. There's a quiet scene of him in a bathtub singing 'Sweet Betsy From Pike.' Most bathtub scenes in westerns are played for laughs. Farnsworth played it quietly.
 
There are no crass comments about aging, no grand philosophical moments. This is such an unusual western  that the characters, even the lowest of them, speak in grammatically correct English. Would an American filmmaker have made such a film? I doubt it. Frank Tidy's cinematography is breathtaking, but not postcard pretty; it is almost always overcast in this Canadian West, and the ground muddy. An American would have insisted on clear blue skies, not to mention at least one bloody shootout, and some comedy relief. What makes The Grey Fox so unique could be it's Canadian sensibility. Review after review commented on the film's "gentle," and "leisurely" quality, words not often used to describe an American western.


 Borsos first heard of Bill Miner when he saw a picture of the bandit hanging in a restaurant. Fascinated by Miner's story, Borsos  planned to produce a movie. When he couldn't find a director, Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell convinced Borsos to direct the film himself. Borsos had just received an Oscar nomination for Nails, a documentary, which helped attract backers. Still, the movie took its time being made; it was finished in 1980, but problems in the editing room plus the lack of a distributor kept the film out of the public eye for two years.  It eventually won seven Genies, Canada's highest honor for films, including awards for Farnsworth, Burroughs, and Borsos, plus Genies for Bill Brodie's art direction, Michael Conway Baker's musical score, and John Hunter's screenplay. 

Hunter was in his 70s at the time of The Grey Fox. He hadn't written a film since the 1950s. He, too, was coming out of darkness to work in a new world. How much of himself did he put into Miner?  
 
Borsos and Hunter played fast and loose with the facts of Miner's life. For instance, Miner died in prison. In The Grey Fox, Miner escapes one more time. We see him in his prison clothes, wading clumsily through a swamp. Then he finds a little boat we believe was left there by Kate. That's OK. Such a lyrical movie deserves a hopeful ending.

The Grey Fox has never been available on DVD, but it maintains a legacy as a Canadian classic. The Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Canada's audio-visual heritage, has designated The Grey Fox a "masterwork." Borsos directed a few more movies, including The Mean Season (1985), an excellent crime drama. He died at 41 of leukemia. 
 
Farnsworth (1920-2000) became a familiar face in movies during the next several years.  He told The Associated Press in 1983, "I guess you might say that The Grey Fox is a kind of Cinderella story for me. When I was a kid, I read in the western magazines about a skinny old guy with a moustache who came out of San Quentin after 30 years for stage robbing and tried his hand and train robbing. Forty-two years later, I end up playing him in a movie. I guess I grew into him."
 
Hollywood didn't always know how to use Farnsworth. He appeared in some good films like Comes a HorsemanThe Natural, Misery, and The Straight Story. Then again, he also played Dolly Parton's father in Rhinestone. No matter the part, Farnsworth was always a true and steady presence. Like Bill Miner, he was a professional.