Thursday, November 19, 2015


Violated! looks at times like the work of rank amateurs. This feature, the first from a fledgling company called Panther Productions, shot on location in various New York neighborhoods, starring some of the stiffest performers you’ve ever seen, vanished almost as soon as it was released on December 11, 1953. Yet, if you saw it, you’d swear there was a good movie inside this bad one, a movie that despite being mired in unprofessionalism has a pulse and personality distinctly its own.

It’s the story of a serial murderer, a deranged photographer named Jan Verbig, played by Wim Holland as a rubbery faced maniac. He invites burlesque dancers to his studio and takes art shots of them. He’s not without talent, and the subjects like his pictures. Of course, he falls in love with the girls; when they don’t return his sticky overtures he offs them with a pair of scissors. Then, he cuts their hair off. He likes the hair.

Verbig has no trouble luring models to his Greenwich Village studio. He seems worldly, dresses well, and has a slight accent, like he might be Bela Lugosi’s nephew. The first time we see him, he’s sweet-talking a young modeling student into posing for him. She’s soon asking her mom, “How would you like to be the mother of a cover girl?”

Verbig has his eye on bigger prey, though. He’s been shooting pics of Lili Damar, played by real life stripteaser Lili Dawn, and hopes the photos will win her over. Like the others, Lili isn’t interested. She says something along the lines of “Keep your dirty hands off me you no good stinking creep,” which is enough to send him back to the studio for his trusty scissors.

Like a wolf tasting blood, Verbig can’t stop killing once he’s started. He’s soon jumping out from the bushes in Central Park to attack women.

The police, meanwhile, are interviewing every pervert and weirdo that has ever been busted in New York, and meeting with a local psychiatrist who specializes in said perverts and weirdoes. Doctor Jason (played with peculiar élan by Jason Niles who was, according to some early press releases, an actual psychiatrist playing the role under an assumed name) is not only an expert on hair fetishists, but is handy with the occasional bromide, such as “It’s not the darkness of prison that cures, it’s the light of understanding.” The cops just want to break some heads.

As for the young woman Verbig met early in the film, we see her at home reading newspaper stories about “the ripper,” and still dreaming of her future as a model. As we might expect, she’s eventually in the embrace of Verbig. “You have such nice hair,” he says. But just as she pulls away in horror, the cops bust in. They soon have Verbig on the floor, thrashing around like a wounded, rabid animal. The scene of Verbig’s capture, which followed an intense late night chase through the streets of the city, is so realistic that it’s disturbing, as if Holland took it upon himself to make this cut-rate crime story into something memorable. He did.

Violated! was filmed on the cheap, with a handful of actors who moved through their scenes with the liveliness of wooden Indians, but there’s something here to be appreciated. The brooding guitar score, for instance, was by jazz legend Tony Mottola. I imagine he was going for the sort of jagged, abrasive sound of Anton Karas' zither in The Third Man theme, which had come out two years earlier. At times Mottola plucks at two alternating strings, creating the rhythm of a clock, or a heartbeat. His jarring chords could be the noise in Verbig’s head.

What fascinates me about Violated! is the way it straddles the line between low budget exploitation and film noir, sitting awkwardly between both styles. The cops in Violated! are not troubled men, as they might be in a noir film. Instead, they’re grim, with no apparent personal lives. Verbig, though, is as odd and multi-layered as some of Peter Lorre’s great characters, particularly resembling Lorre’s child killer in M. Also, the movie is daring enough to show its villains in a somewhat sympathetic light. I especially liked the deviants at the first police roundup. They look like beaten men, worn down by their own filthy minds. You wouldn’t find a worse looking group of losers in a Fritz Lang movie.

The film’s reception in 1953 was uneven. Understandably, critics picked at the film’s flimsy look, the bad acting, and the unsavory subject matter. Brooklyn Eagle reviewer Jane Corby wrote that the film “lacks the professional touch and most of the cast seem unfamiliar with their roles.” As for Holland, Corby felt his performance as Verbig was “too repellent for the entertainment screen.” Meanwhile, a Buffalo Courier critic called the film a “violent shocker,” but applauded its social message that “psychopaths are at large in real life” and deserved “better facilities for their care.”

The film does, in its way, reach for something that was slightly beyond its grasp, namely, a last scene mea culpa where Verbig is given truth serum and then regresses to his childhood. Holland weeps and writhes as he recalls a traumatic moment involving his parents. It feels a bit pat, but it’s a challenging scene. Here’s an amateur film crew making a commercial thriller about a lurid subject, and they’re trying to explain the killer’s twisted motives. The concept of the “sex maniac” was gaining traction as a national scourge, and here’s a screenplay dipping naively into Krafft-Ebing and Freud, explaining the killer as having been wounded by a painful upbringing. It doesn’t really add to the film, but there’s something noble about the scene. Holland, incidentally, was the film’s co-producer, and may have had some input into portraying Verbig as pathetic, and not entirely evil.

He never acted again or produced another film, but Holland put everything into his maiden effort. He showed his chutzpah when a newspaper strike occurred during the week of the film’s debut. Rather than suffer a loss of advertising, Holland stood in the middle of Times Square handing out flyers. The handbill said, “Did you get a good look at the man who just handed you this? You don’t know him now, but after Dec 11, he will be the most despised man in town.” Rightfully so, Holland was proud of his work and wanted people to see it. His sprint through the city with the police on his trail is incredibly effective, the look on his face one of absolute fear and shame. Few killers on film have been portrayed with their self-loathing so close to the surface. I’d compare his performance to Andrew Robinson’s turn as the killer in Dirty Harry.

The movie’s budget hurts it, but the film can be looked at now as an exercise in guerilla filmmaking, with many shots taken on the fly at various New York locations. Passersby wander into shots, almost glancing at the camera. It’s as if Panther Productions was so strapped they couldn’t even afford a fourth wall. Yet, cinematographer Pat Rich and director Walter Strate occasionally go in for a camera angle that is downright expressionistic; for a moment you’re fooled into thinking this is an actual noir film with German expats at the helm. But then the actors start talking, and everything turns to shit.
Only producer William Mishkin, who co-wrote the script with Holland, continued in the business. Staying true to his exploitation roots, he spent the next two decades producing soft porn and horror flicks, including a few collaborations with seventies low budget horror maven Andy Milligan (The Man With Two Heads; The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here!).

As for the rest of the cast, most never worked again. Lili Dawn, of course, appeared in some of Irving Klaw’s 8MM fetish films, but she was no Bettie Page. Mitchell Kowall and William Martel, the main investigators, continued acting in movies and television, though they weren’t much more convincing than the rest of the unknown cast. And where did these unknowns come from? I imagine some were friends of the filmmakers, and others were plucked from the Greenwich Village neighborhood where much of the filming was done.

I always wonder about the people who appeared in films like this one. What did they think of the finished product? Did they just do it for fun? Did they know it was about a killer hair fetishist? Did they care? Was the allure of being in a movie so strong that they’d do it regardless of the subject, even if they risked becoming the most despised people in town?

Monday, November 16, 2015


                                       Why don’t we know more about Thelma Todd?
                                                               by Don Stradley


Thelma Todd was here and gone – an almost archetypical female image of the late twenties and early thirties,  holding the screen with the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy  – without a trace.  Her name, of course, rings a gentle bell with me, probably because Kenneth Anger gave her baffling death a few paragraphs in his morbid Hollywood Babylon.  It’s not poor Thelma’s fault that she blends in so easily with the other pretty blondes of the era, all of those good time girls who died mysteriously. As Michelle Morgan reports in The Ice Cream Blonde, Todd had enough sass and charm to light up a small building. Unfortunately, Todd did her thing many years before the baby boomers were around to immortalize her to James Dean-type proportions, so she doesn’t get the teary tributes on TCM from Carol Burnett or Amy Poehler. Still, by writing a book with care and love, Morgan makes us feel that by missing out on Thelma Todd, we’ve missed out on something big.

Morgan begins in December 1935 with Todd’s body being discovered in her 1932 Lincoln phaeton, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning at age 29. Suicide? Accidental death? Foul play? We’ll never know. Then we’re whisked back to Todd’s early days in Lawrence, Massachusetts where she’d been a beauty contest winner and an aspiring school teacher. A naturally vivacious young woman with saucer eyes and a face that promised mischief, Todd earned a spot at the newly formed Paramount School in New York, a place where “talented young people could be nurtured and grow into mainstream actors.” In a stunt that reeks of American Idol, the whole class was featured in a readymade hunk of studio fluff called Fascinating Youth, and then dispersed across the country to promote the thing. Todd was the obvious standout, but her story is not of a star struck kid who clawed her way onto Groucho’s lap. She was a hard worker, and serious about acting. One of her contemporaries described her as “the smartest dumb blond I ever knew.” Todd was good enough for comedy magnate Hal Roach to create a female version of Stan and Ollie by pairing Thelma first with Zasu Pitts, and then Patsy Kelly; his experiments didn’t quite match what he’d done with the boys, but he may have created the template for Laverne & Shirley

The work came in buckets: Vamping Venus, Dollar Dizzy, Looser Than Loose, The Pip From Pittsburgh. Todd was usually billed second or third, and was typically saucy; she didn’t steal scenes so much as pick their pockets for fun. One reviewer called her “half vampire and half clown.” She made the transition from silent to talkies with hardly a ruffle, and by the time of her death she’d appeared in nearly 120 movies.  The beginning of the end may have been when Todd fell for Roland West, a middling film director who was described by some as “sinister.” Years after their fling he asked her to help him run a chic sidewalk café in Santa Monica. She was getting too old to play the gum chewing babe who kept a pet seal in her hotel room, so the café seemed a good way to branch out. “I can’t quite get Hollywood,” Todd once said, pointing to her New England upbringing as the reason for her discomfort. “People here have no sense of values.”

Morgan has authored books on Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. Though she has a penchant for showbiz scandals, she avoids gaudiness and  writes in a careful style that is eminently readable. While gangsters have always been part of the Todd mystery – she was briefly married to a wannabe mobster, and she allegedly faced down a bunch of Nevada mugs who’d wanted to enhance the café with a casino – Morgan actually digs up some new names and theories to ponder. Morgan’s specialty is raising red flags, especially around the odd behavior of West and his wife, Jewel Carmen, a shady pair who kept tripping over their stories in the days after Todd’s death. Morgan’s real achievement, though, is that she has kicked Todd back to life, and I’ll never again dismiss her as just another post-flapper tootsie whose gaiety hid a dark side. Fame was still a new concept in those days, so people in the movie industry were often waylaid by it. Some of Thelma’s peers killed themselves by jumping from the Hollywoodland sign; others ate rat poison, or died at the business end of a coke bottle at Fatty Arbuckle’s house. They shot themselves, they shot each other, they shot their lovers. Todd, with her intelligence and practicality, should’ve sidestepped all of that mess. In fact, she seems like a very modern woman, and would fit in with today’s female stars, especially with her various stalkers, weight struggles, and bad taste in men.  



Thursday, November 12, 2015


Chicago Calling isn’t on anyone’s list of masterpieces but more than 60 years after it was first released it’s still a marvel of simplicity.

It first arrived during the late months of 1951 alongside such sexed-up blockbusters as A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. How could such a plain little story survive in such bloated, "important" company?  A simple tale of a man trying to raise $53.00 to have his phone service reinstalled, it was usually programmed on the bottom end of double features, typically with a war movie above it. By 1957, it was already on television, sandwiched in between daytime soaps and quiz shows. Maybe bored housewives watched it while ironing their husband’s shirts. I’ll bet they loved it, and talked about it during dinner.

The movie, reissued on DVD in recent years as part of the Warner Brothers Archive Collection, was co-written and directed by John Reinhardt, a filmmaker from Vienna who had a reasonably successful career in America, usually as a maker of crime films. Chicago Calling is sometimes described as noir, but such a distinction actually diminishes it. It’s a drama, with heart, the sort of movie that feels at first like a soggy melodrama from long ago only to suddenly bushwhack you with the seriousness of its subject.  

The story is elemental. It stars Dan Duryea, an actor known for playing crooks, as Bill Cannon, a man whose wife is leaving him. Bill’s a drinker. He’s not a bad man, but he’s irresponsible. HIs wife (Mary Anderson) has given him an ultimatum: she’s leaving, and will only come back if he straightens himself out. The scenes where she packs her bags and heads out to the train station are heartbreaking.  She’s hocked a brooch he’d given her in order to pay for her trip. When Bill learns this, he goes to the pawn shop and gets the brooch back. He’ll pay for her train ticket, even though he’s broke. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to his daughter (Melinda Plowman), a scrappy little kid who defends her daddy's honor in playground fights, so he spends the night at a friend’s house. Still, when his wife and daughter leave the next morning, Bill is hiding behind a bush near their home, as if he’d wanted one last look at them.

The next time we see Bill, he’s sleeping off a hangover on a buddy’s couch. He can’t change his ways. Not right away. When he returns home, he finds a man from the phone company removing his phone. Bill’s body language seems to say ‘Take everything. I don’t give a shit.’ As Bill goes through the mail that has piled up in his absence, he finds a scary telegram from his wife in Chicago. His daughter was in a car accident and is waiting for an operation. There will be a call the next morning to let him know how things have turned out.

Bill, of course, panics. He has no phone.  He spends the rest of the day roaming his Los Angeles neighborhood, trying to find enough money to have his phone service turned on.  His friends won’t help him, because he already owes them money. The bank won’t help. The phone company won’t help. The clerks he encounters are unbearably smarmy, as if they can't believe he's allowed himself to fall this far. One fellow literally laughs as Bill tries to explain his problem. A television producer overhears Bill telling his sorrows to a waitress, and offers Bill a chance to go on TV to present his story to the public. Bill turns the offer down. His dignity won’t allow him to make a spectacle of himself. 

Later, he befriends a young boy (Gordon Gebert) who steals some money to help. This would solve Bill’s dilemma, but his integrity rears up again. He tells the boy to return the money. By then, the police are after Bill because the boy’s family knows the money was stolen and assume Bill was involved. Still desperate to raise the money on his own, Bill takes a night job at a construction site, enduring the mockery of the other workers because he can’t handle the jackhammer. But his drive amuses the foreman, who pays him for a shift and wishes him well. He returns to his home and learns that a phone serviceman has given him a break. The phone is back on temporarily, just long enough for Bill to get the call. But Bill’s good fortune is disrupted when the cops arrive. As Bill is being handcuffed, the phone begins to ring. He begs the police to let him answer. I found myself feeling for this poor guy. And things only get worse for him.

The story is so direct and poignant that it almost plays like postwar Italian neorealism, with Duryea wandering the streets in frustration, first with his little dog at his side, and later with the boy. By 1951, films like The Bicycle Thief had obviously been digested by filmmakers, and Chicago Calling, I think, is an example of someone taking De Sica’s earthy fable and using its style in America.  But Americans weren’t especially taken by such stark realism. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, one of the few newspapers to actually review the film, walloped Chicago Calling, calling it “an erratic story that sounds like one of the more hopelessly irresponsible case histories lifted anonymously out of the files of a family welfare agency.” 

True, Duryea plays the kind of helpless schnook who was probably anathema to the times, but there’s so much warmth to him, especially in the scenes with his daughter and the boy, that I can’t imagine people not rooting for him. 

In the recent Time Out of Mind, Richard Gere plays a man not unlike Bill Cannon, a basically good guy who has made some bad choices in life and is now forced to negotiate with a society that wants nothing to do with him. Such films seem to play better with the passing of time. When people forget that Gere was known for playing studs and sharpies, his portrayal in Time Out of Mind will be even more impressive. Duryea had some stereotypes to deal with, too. He was known to moviegoers as the actor you hired to treat women roughly, or to shoot someone in the back. Critic Manny Farber of The New Republic once dismissed Duryea as “a self-conscious, over-emphatic villain.” What did moviegoers think in 1951 when the usually malevolent Duryea was cast as Bill Cannon, the well-meaning guy who simply wanted to pay his phone bill? Reinhardt had seen something in Duryea, a weariness, a sadness, and thought he was the man for the part. Imagine Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster in the role. They’d eat the scenery. Duryea gets it just right.

At the time, Reinhardt was bouncing between low budget American features,  productions for the foreign language markets, and a stint directing six episodes of TV’s Fireside Theater. He never had a huge hit, and tended to work under the Hollywood radar. He’s what would now be called an “independent.” Chicago Calling was his last work in America. He made two more films in Germany, and died in 1953 at age 52.  He had some great help for Chicago Calling. The musical score was by Heinz Roemheld, an Oscar winner whose career dated back to silent era. The cinematography was by Oscar nominated veteran Robert De Grasse, who photographed many crime and horror films during the 1930s and ‘40s. De Grasse adds an eeriness to Bill’s late night walks through the city; the dump site where he briefly works looks like a lunar strip, the workers milling about like phantoms. Best of all, the location shooting at LA’s old Bunker Hill neighborhood gives the movie the feel of an alfresco tragedy, as Duryea stalks through dark alleys and crummy apartment buildings; the environment reflects a man whose possibilities are running out.

As for Duryea, he once said that Chicago Calling was his favorite among his films, partly because it had made his wife cry. He took no money for the role, working for a percentage of the profits. Unfortunately, there were none. He was soon back to playing heels, but in 1957 he starred in an excellent vehicle for himself, The Burglar, where he played an aging crook trying to make one last score. It was a great role, and he nailed it, but like Chicago Calling, it went by unnoticed. There followed some steady TV work, and a gradual fade into spaghetti westerns and low-grade sci-fi. He died in 1968 at age 61. Duryea's final role was in The Bamboo Saucer, about a downed spacecraft found in China, co-produced by the same group that brought us Gamara The Invincible and Blood Beast From Outer Space. It was a weird way to end a career, but we all come to a weird end, don't we?

"My reputation as an actor is a good one,” Duryea once said. “But I've no illusions about being the world's greatest.” 

In Chicago Calling, he’s very close to greatness.


For a fun Dan Duryea fan site, try
Lots of great pics and a nice video tribute....

Monday, November 9, 2015


Time Out of Mind Movie Review

Two questions come to mind when I see a homeless person. How did they get into this situation? And how will they get out of it?

My response to the homeless varies. There are certain types for whom I have great sympathy. Others simply puzzle me, or even frighten me.

When I first spent time in the city, the homeless were mostly older men down on their luck. Then came a wave of mental patients who’d been turned out onto the streets because there weren’t enough beds for them at local clinics. Then, because we had a mayor who wanted our city to be a family friendly place for tourists, the homeless population dwindled, as if swept under a carpet. In recent years I’ve seen an upsurge, with many war veterans on the street, and a surprising number of teenagers setting up camps near the subway station, smirking at passersby as if their condition is one big ironic joke. In the new movie Time Out of Mind, we see all of these variations of homeless people, and what happens in between the moments when we walk past them on the way to our jobs. 

The movie seems to know the realities of the homeless, or as they’re sometimes called now, the “reduced.”  If you’ve ever seen one of the down and outers with a new bottle of his favorite vodka, and wondered how he afforded it, this movie tells you.

George Hammond (Richard Gere) is homeless in New York. The first time we see him, he’s hiding in an abandoned building, asleep in a bathtub. When a renovation team lead by Steve Buscemi arrives to work on the place, George rambles on about a woman named Sheila. He seems delusional. There’s a bit of a cat and mouse game as George tries to stay in the building, but he’s soon out on the street, sleeping rough.

George is a mystery.  He may be mentally ill, but sometimes he’s lucid. He has a long scar on the side of his scalp. Did he fall down while drunk and crack his skull? Is that why he’s forgetful? In the course of the movie we learn that he’s an alcoholic, has some ability as a pianist, and occasionally relied on the kindness of women to get him through hard times. “I’m not handsome,” he says at one point. “But maybe I used to be.”  

We follow George as he tries one shelter, then another. He’s subjected to various screening processes, to see exactly what sort of help he may require. The questions confuse and irritate him. He’s smart enough to hock his coat at a pawn shop to make a few dollars, and then find a replacement coat at a nearby church. But the questions about his past seem unanswerable. A glimmer of hope appears in the form of his long estranged daughter, but their relationship is frazzled. In time, George is eating out of garbage bins.

Though much of George’s life seems grim, the movie points out something we don’t usually consider, that the worst thing about being homeless is that you spend most of your time with other homeless people. The movie avoids the old trope about homeless men being secret geniuses. The men George meets at the shelters are mostly idiots and liars, or so sick that they aren’t much help to him. One, played by Ben Vereen in a beautifully scratchy performance, claims to have once been a promising jazz musician. One night Vereen disappears, banished from the shelter for being a nuisance. George fears that he, too, may one day vanish, as if the “reduced” are eventually reduced to nothing.

Gere gives a career best performance as George Hammond. He has a stunning scene near the end where he realizes a lifetime of bad choices has brought him to this point, and that not even his daughter wants to help him. Actors like to play homeless alcoholics because it gives them a chance to be outrageous, but Gere smartly underplays everything. I imagine this is the sort of role he’s wanted to play for years, while trapped in a cycle of romantic comedies. (On a side note, there’s only one homeless woman in the movie, a former prostitute played by Kyra Sedgwick. For some reason, George and the old girl end up having intercourse under a blue plastic tarp. I’m not sure why the scene existed, unless it was to show that, despite losing his identity, George still had the old charm.)

A minor fault in the film is that writer/director Oren Moverman doesn’t quite trust the plainness of the story, so he overcooks it with lots of high-flying camera work. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski comes up with some Oscar worthy innovations, shooting entire scenes through dirty windows, giving people a blurred, ghostly appearance. Sometimes characters seem to disappear as they’re talking, which is a striking effect. I also liked how much of the sound seems to be buried, as if George is only hearing snippets of conversations, or voices from behind walls. Still, there’s a thin line between artful and artsy, and this movie stumbles onto the worst side of things more than once. I preferred the simpler scenes, where George gets by on his wits, or notches a small victory by finding a quiet place to sit for a while. 

After the movie, as I walked to the train station, I was approached by a homeless man who asked if I had a cigarette. He wore no shoes. I said that I had none, and he walked on. That was it. It will take more than a Richard Gere movie to change the dynamic of these encounters. But as I waited for my train, I felt the temperature dropping. Winter was coming, and these nights would be horrible for men like George Hammond. Out of curiosity, I looked down the tracks for the shoeless man, wondering if he’d scored his cigarette. He was long gone.




Tuesday, November 3, 2015


It’s New York in the late 1970s, a time of punk rock and garbage strikes, of Ed Koch and Son of Sam, and what probably felt like an endless spectacle of crime and murder in the streets.  In the middle of this toxic city is Reno, a scuffling artist who shares a grimy apartment with two women. He may love one, or both. Then again, the two females seem to be lesbians. Or are they? The bigger problem is that Reno can’t pay the bills. We get the sense that Reno is going crazy. It may just be the sort of craziness that can happen to people in pressure cooker environments like New York in the 1970s, or he could be going full-bore movie crazy, as we’d expect a character to go in Abel Ferrara’s grim masterpiece The Driller Killer. The beauty of it all, and what makes this movie kind of artsy pop-trash classic, is that Reno manages to go both kinds of crazy. And why not? It’s that sort of movie; part cinema verite look at city psychosis, and part splatter flick. It’s like an arthouse movie made for the drive-in crowd. Or, perhaps, a splatter film made by John Cassavetes. 

What was Ferrara thinking? He’s made a handful of interesting features since this herky-jerky feature debut, but none were as full-on demented and hateful as the tale of a struggling painter who finally loses his marbles and runs through the city with a power drill, performing lobotomies and splenectomies on homeless men. By the movie’s end, Reno is sporting a monster drill nearly as long as his arm. A phallic fantasy? An answer to the massive gun fantasies in films like Taxi Driver and Dirty Harry? Just a blast of wishful thinking? 

When you watch The Driller Killer, you see a hatred for New York in the 1970s that nearly leaks out of the screen.  This isn’t Woody Allen’s New York, where people while away their afternoons at foreign films, or on their analyst’s couch. It’s not even Martin Scorsese’s New York, where well-dressed hoods eat in fancy restaurants. This is a rock bottom view of the city, where a night’s entertainment might include sitting around in your shithole apartment wishing you had some drugs, or huddled in front of your barely working television set, wondering if you’ll get through the program before the electric company shuts you off. It’s where idiot musicians move into the apartment above yours and pound out their stupid sounds until 3:00 AM, where the electric guitar shrieks are so loud that they disturb the winos in the alley below. 

What I sense is that Ferrara knew this hate firsthand. Though he didn’t write the screenplay (it was written by frequent Ferrara collaborator Nicholas St. John), he nailed the anxiety and rage, captured by a weird motif that appears three or four times in the film, that of Reno (played by Ferrara under an alias) shaking his head and howling under what looks like a shower of blood. It’s the kind of fury we feel in dreams. 

Certainly The Driller Killer is a portrait of a person being whittled to a nub by his environment. Reno can’t escape. Even in the safety of his apartment, he’s  forced to listen to his roommate reading nasty newspaper articles about people throwing dogs into microwave ovens where they blow up. When Reno ventures outside, he sees nothing but homeless men and old drunks puking in the street. (Early in the film he has an encounter in a church with a an old homeless man who seems to be Reno’s father. Does Reno fear becoming a drooling derelict like his dad?)

The  ruined men in the neighborhood may provide a kind of echo for what’s in Reno’s mind. One strikes up a conversation and asks “Are you having woman problems?” Another has an argument with an imagined father figure. Reno kills both.

Reno doesn’t seem especially concerned about being caught, even after he’s killed a dozen or so people. He slips around the city, his drill powered by a special battery pack he saw advertised on television, and simply picks out random victims. There’s so much crime and death in the area that a few dead winos won’t even be missed. There’s no climactic showdown with the cops, and no last minute confession from Reno about why he kills. Not that we see, anyway. All we know is that Reno’s murderous side has been unleashed, and in the cesspool that is 1970s New York, he’ll keep going until he runs out of drill bits. 

The movie is cheaply made, but that’s an asset. The hand-held shooting style, the authentic New York backgrounds, the squalid streets and alleys, feel lifelike, as if we’re watching a 1970s No-Wave version of Italian neo-realism. The cast, too, is fascinating. The performers seem to be a mix of real actors and real winos. Scenes at a rock club feel as desolate and mean as what we’ve seen in documentary footage of those times. Some of the acting is bad in a 1960s Roger Corman way, but some of it is surprisingly moving. The winos being murdered, for instance, are unexpectedly sympathetic, far more so than any of the screaming females who’ve been hacked to death in hundreds of lesser movies. 

Ferrara is gripping as Reno. Thin, hatchet faced, on edge, he’s boiling over from the first moment we see him. Almost stealing the show, though, is an actor listed as Rhodney Montreal. He plays Tony Coca-Cola, one of the punk rock goons upstairs. He’s actually D.A. Metrov, who later went on to write and direct his own short films. As Tony, he avoids every rock cliché and creates a unique, memorable persona. I wish every actor playing a rocker would watch Metrov as Tony Coca-Cola, just to help blow the usual formula out of their heads. Though the majority of the cast had never acted in anything else (and would never act again), one fellow, James O’Hara, was a veteran character actor who had appeared in films dating back to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. He must have been the company pro. But like most of his cast mates, O’Hara never acted again.

The Driller Killer gained some notoriety in the 1980s when it was banned in the U.K. as part of their “video nasties” witch hunt, when distributors objected to what was a very graphic video box cover. But how else can you sell this movie, if not with a close-up of a drill boring into a man’s head? In 1983 European Parliament members were subject to a 20 minute sequence of scenes from films like The Driller Killer, Cannibal Holocaust, and I Spit on Your Grave, put together by British conservative Richard Simmons in an effort to stop the sale of extremely violent videos. Simmons got his wish, and thousands of VHS tapes were confiscated from UK stores. That Ferrara's film was far better (and not half as disgusting) as those other titles was apparently not part of the discussion. The movie was banned in England until 1999, a full two decades after its first release. Still, it became a minor cult favorite, regarded by some as one of the films that kicked off the splatter film boom of the ‘80s. You might say The Driller Killer is to splatter movies what Iggy Pop is to punk.

Ferrara has since gone on to direct movies about vampires, mobsters, Kung-Fu killers, and corrupt cops, while New York remains his milieu. He has become a better director since The Driller Killer, but I don’t know if he’s made a better movie. He still likes to challenge the status quo – his most recent film was an account of the last day of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe in the title role – but he’s moved on to more mature subjects, leaving the strangeness of The Driller Killer behind, back in the 1970s where it belongs, I guess.

And what a strange movie it is, from its opening warning that “This Film Should Be Played Loud,” to the final tongue in cheek dedication to the people of New York. This movie wasn’t made to create a franchise, or inspire “driller killer” Halloween costumes, and it didn’t come out of a studio pitch meeting where a committee determined if it would appeal to a mass audience. So where did it come from? Abel Ferrara’s troubled mind, perhaps. Or Hell itself.

- Don Stradley


Monday, November 2, 2015


NEW BIO TELLS SAD, COMPLICATED TALE OF 1960s BOXING CHAMPION...But Will We Ever Know The Whole Story about Emile Griffith?

by Don Stradley

If they ever decide to make a movie on Emile Griffith’s life based on Donald McRae’s A Man’s World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, this is how the opening scene should play: Griffith, wearing an electric pink jumpsuit, is dancing at his favorite Times Square gay bar while an entourage of transvestites and young Latino males scream encouragement. Then, as the NYPD arrives to bust up the place, Griffith sneaks out. He heads home in a pink convertible, past the old Madison Square Garden where he’d thrilled so many fans during his boxing career,  back to his swanky Weehawken apartment where the partying continues. He climbs into bed with his favorite fellow, but the camera zooms in on Griffith’s tortured face as he begins to weep. According McRae, the five time boxing champ was often in tears.   

It was, McRae writes, a life of melancholy broken up by occasional bursts of happiness.

Griffith, a winner of 85 professional bouts and twice chosen by boxing writers as Fighter of The Year, was forced to keep his love life buried away, for fear of how the macho world of boxing would react. It was a constant game of denial, as sportswriters needled at Griffith, asking about his past as a designer of women’s hats, and why there were no women in his life. It wasn’t much of a secret, really. Griffith never denied himself the company of men, especially younger ones that he would introduce as his “nephew” or “son.” But he knew any public declaration of his personal life wouldn’t go over well, not at a time when New York was in the middle of what appeared to be a queer witch hunt, partly because, of all things, the 1964 World’s Fair was coming. Mayor Robert Wagner felt it would be bad publicity if the rest of America saw New York’s streets crowded with gays. It wasn’t uncommon in those days to see gays arrested and locked away, or thrown into psychiatric wards where they’d undergo everything up to and including electroshock therapy. It was a time when Griffith’s friends protected themselves by carrying box cutters and lead pipes in their bags.

Griffith never liked the word “gay.” Something in his Caribbean background bristled at the word; he didn’t know why people used it to describe him, and said it made him “sound like a freak.” Of course, old-time psychiatrists would consider him a textbook case, with an absent father, a controlling mother, and an ugly encounter in the Virgin Islands of his youth, when a dirty old man lured young Griffith to a shed and molested him. Griffith nursed a lifelong puzzlement over the entire gay phenomenon.  He loved his gay friends, had his most fulfilling relationships with men, but was baffled when people called him “gay.” Who knows what the word really meant to him? And how would he feel to know that each new book or documentary exposes a bit more of Griffith? McRae doesn’t merely say that Griffith enjoyed dancing with men, he describes scenes where Griffith is up on a pedestal like a go-go boy, being felt up by men in drag. I can almost hear Griffith saying, “Why do you write about me this way?”

When pressmen weren’t writing articles that hinted at Griffith’s sexual preferences, they were badgering him about his 1962 title bout with Cuba’s Benny ‘Kid’ Paret, the one that resulted in Paret’s death. It was the third time they’d fought, and Paret had been taunting Griffith ever since the weigh-in of their second bout. In fact, McRae reveals that Paret’s taunting had been far more graphic and crude than we’ve previously heard about. The fight, shown on ABC television on a Saturday evening, ended with Paret slumping to his death as Griffith punched away at his head. And just like that, the happy go lucky Griffith, who’d started boxing just a few years earlier as a bubbly kid, had a dark cloud over him at all times. For most fighters of Griffith’s time, being gay would’ve been enough of a cross to bear. Killing an opponent in the ring would be, too. Griffith had both things to contend with, which provided him with a piercing way of describing our screwed up society: “I kill a man and most people forgive me. However, I love a man, and many say this makes me an evil person.”

The book reads like a biography wrapped in a history lesson, with McRae giving us plenty about the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination to provide a sort of grim, 1960s backdrop for the Griffith story. What’s intriguing is that, aside from the gayness, Griffith’s story isn’t much different from any other pug’s tale. Griffith was a simple, inarticulate man surrounded by a family of bloodsuckers who spent his money faster than he could make it. He fought long past his prime to help support them, and ended up with dementia pugilistica. His final days were spent in a Hampstead NY care facility, sitting in bed staring into space. 

McRae tries to find as many high points as possible, including the boxing triumphs over Luis Rodriguez and Nino Benvenuti, and the time when Griffith stood up to South Africa’s Apartheid government and said he wouldn’t fight in Soweto unless his white trainer was allowed in his corner. But the good times never feel like total victories because we know there’s so much sadness to come.

The nightmares that haunted Griffith after the death of Paret are given an entire chapter, and they are chilling. A cackling Paret kept appearing in Griffith’s dreams, offering his cold damp hand to shake, the hand of death. Many fighters have inadvertently caused the death of an opponent, and in Griffith’s time there seemed to be a high profile ring death every few months, but has any fighter ever suffered guilt the way Griffith did? And has any fighter been so closely associated with a ring death as Griffith? Even later, when he became a trainer, Griffith was in Wilford Scypion’s corner when Scypion caused the death of Willie Classen. Death by violence followed Griffith everywhere, and nearly caught him when, much later in life, he walked out of a gay club and was nearly beaten to death by thugs. The attack put him in the hospital for four months. The nightmare played on.

To McRae’s credit, he doesn’t oversell Griffith as a fighter. Griffith was good, though. After the death of Paret, Griffith grew shy about hurting opponents. Yet, he was still able to win fights just by using basic boxing skills, a good jab, enough pressure to win rounds. Imagine trying to win fights without hurting a guy? Griffith was good enough to do it. Then, in his mid-thirties and just about washed up, he gave reigning middleweight champ Carlos Monzon a pair of gritty, close fights, nearly winning a sixth world title. Considering Griffith never wanted to be a fighter in the first place and would’ve been happy working at a millenary, his ring accomplishments were impressive, well worth his eventual induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He went in with the 1990 class, the first group inducted, which included Ali, Louis, Robinson, all the best. That Griffith was part of the 1990 class is astonishing. He'd only taken up the sport when his boss at the hat factory noticed his physique and suggested Griffith enter a local tournament. Talk about being plucked from obscurity!

While the book is enjoyable, there are shortcomings. McRae writes with a heavy hand and leans toward the sentimental. There are times when McRae seems downright dumb with his choice of words, such as when he describes Griffith as being “both a king and a queen,” or when referee Ruby Goldstein breaks a clinch between Griffith and Paret as if they were “two teenage lovers caught canoodling on a park bench.” McRae is better off when he doesn’t try so hard, like when he describes the distressed Griffith speaking to the press after the Paret disaster, when “words fell from him in a broken mess.” 

McRae’s portraits of other fighters are well drawn, such as the sharpshooting Rodriguez, known as “El Feo” (The ugly one), and bighearted Joe Frazier, who befriended Griffith. I especially liked McRae’s depiction of Griffith’s trainer, the stoic Gil Clancy. Paret, too, is given a detailed treatment; one feels for the Kid as he complains of headaches for months before his tragic night with Griffith.

Still, McRae has an unfortunate urge to insert himself into the story. Those chapters feel mawkish, with McRae visiting Griffith at the care facility, trying to speak to the oblivious old fighter, “my hand curled around Emile’s.” A chapter where McRae visits Orlando Cruz, a fighter who came out as gay in recent years, feels forced into the book and doesn’t amount to much. By the 10th time McRae hauls out Griffith’s quote about killing a man, you may want to kill McRae.

The book’s biggest flaw, though, is McRae’s attempt to turn Griffith into a sort of gay Joe Louis or Jack Johnson. There may be something to this angle, and it’s possibly how McRae pitched the book to his publishers, but it’s a stretch. McRae’s suggestion that Griffith hearing a gay slur was more hurtful than being called a racial slur is also suspect, as is the notion that the gay rioters outside the Stonewall Inn battled the NYPD “as if the spirit of Emile Griffith…had entered every one of them.” I doubt the bottle throwing transvestites were thinking much about Griffith at all. Besides, shortly after the Stonewall riots, Griffith was involved in a sham marriage with a former member of the June Taylor Dancers, hardly the action of a gay freedom fighter.

But then, when one writes about such a sad and complicated figure as Griffith, there’s a tendency to elevate him, to find some reason for his life other than pain and sorrow. Freddie Wright, an old friend of Griffith’s, put it well for McRae: “Emile lived in two worlds. He was a great fighter and they loved and respected him in boxing. In his other world, in my world, he made gay people feel so proud – especially because he was a world champion boxer. We not only respected and liked Emile, we loved him. Yeah, he lived two lives, but each one should be remembered. Each one should be celebrated.”

Fair enough. That’s why McRae’s book, as uneven as it may be, is worth a read.