Sunday, July 12, 2009

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

When this film first came out in 1973, I despised it. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid came across as a narrative mess of excessive shoot outs virtually playing like a parody of the worst aspects of a bloody Sam Peckinpah epic.

But over the years, several things changed. Several versions of the movie would appear on video approaching Peckinpah's original intentions. It became obvious that the rumors of studio sabotage against the movie was not only true, but they actually butchered the film into nonsensical shreds. All the scenes in which the themes of the movie took place had been cut and only the gunfights remained, reducing Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to the level of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

I also found myself reading more of the actual history of the Lincoln County Range War and the events surrounding Billy the Kid. In many regards, this is one of the more factual of the many movies based of these events (with some of the violence actually toned down a bit). Even the mythic embellishments in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid are minor additions that suits Peckinpah's themes.

More importantly, I became a middle aged man. Suddenly, the themes of a life betrayed (Garrett's more than Billy's) began to hit hard with a somber sense of poetic irony. For Peckinpah, Billy the Kid was simply an idealized figure of youth (the pure outlaw with his own moral code). The real tragic figure was Pat Garrett, the aging outlaw-turned-sheriff. In the film, he insists that times has changed and that he is simply adapting to the new West. By the end of the film, he has killed and betrayed virtually everyone close to him and has no one left to shoot but his own besotted reflection in the mirror.

OK, in reality Pat Garrett was a pure bred son of a bitch who seemingly had no problems betraying any body at any time at any place. He was also one of the first union-busters of the old West. It was guys like Garrett who succeeded in making Billy the Kid look so damn noble.

As Garrett, James Coburn delivers one of his finest performances as a spiritual deadbeat whose moral hypocrisy is almost as great as his increasingly violent and drunken state of denial. Since the movie bookends the narrative with Garrett's own murder, the futility of Garrett's actions are front and center. The real subject of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is about all the foolish ways a person can sometimes lie to himself in a vain attempt to make himself look good.

Along with The Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is one of Peckinpah's genuine master pieces. But you have to see it in the director's cut (actually, there are several, each one of which is superior to the theatrical release). Aside from engaging in an open war with his producer and studio during the making of the film, Peckinpah was also sinking fast into the booze and drug haze that would plague the rest of his career. The anger and angst that would fuel the violent poetry of The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid would soon turn into the addict delusions and unfocused rages of Cross of Iron (his last interesting movie). The remainder of his films quickly became a load of half-baked gibberish.

Oh yeah, then there is the soundtrack score by Bob Dylan. The music is fantastic. His acting appearance, uhhh, not quite so fantastic.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Winter Kills

Some films are damned by nature like an ugly child, malnourished and abandoned. Other movies earn their damnation the old fashion way, they work for it. The 1979 production of Winter Kills is an example of the latter. The movie's mix of intense paranoia, Kennedy-conspiracy theories, and outrageous deadpan ironies resulted in a black satire darker than a moonless night. Odd thing, the film is also a hoot to watch - at least it is once you are clued into the joke.

Freely adapted from the novel by Richard (The Manchurian Candidate) Condon, Winter Kills presents some of the greatest bits from various Kennedy conspiracy theories. Beginning with the bizarre opening as the late President Kegan's younger half-brother (Jeff Bridges) is confronted with the dying confession of the second gun to the assassination 19 years earlier in Philadelphia, Winter Kills precedes on a wild and star-studded meander through the American political subconscious.

As Bridges' character finds himself compelled to follow one weird lead after another, he finds himself stumbling through the scandals of his own family as well as a secret political culture that is running out of control. All the while, he is dogged by a mysterious series of murders that is seemingly preceded by the appearance of a young girl and child on a bicycle, popping gum in time to the gun shots. He is egged on by his own father (John Huston in a performance that delivers new meaning to the phrase “filthy old money”) even though the investigation is bound to unlock family secrets that old man Kegan has previously killed to suppress.

Long rumored to have been railroaded by the Kennedy family during its production and release (which is actually true - check out the best article documenting this case in the March 11, 1985 edition of the London Times), Winter Kills also has the particular distinction of going through several studios during its filming, having two producers who were financing the movie with drug trade money (one of them went to prison and the other ended up with the gun, not the cannoli), and a final release that was so low key even the theater owners didn't know it was playing. I only saw the film during its brief release because I had already seen everything else that was playing.

At times, the surreal humor of Winter Kills veers close to being a Mad magazine parody. But the movie also has a strange melancholia that at the oddest moments touches a sentimental nerve. Basically, we all know that the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy. Heck, it doesn't even require a mastermind to narrow the list down to the overwhelmingly obvious suspects. The Warren Report, and all of the rest of the official denial, is just a load of horse hockey (something that even Lyndon Johnston stated in private conversations). But this act of public murder and phony denial has been the underpinning to contemporary American history. And to be honest, the denial sort of makes us all co-conspirators.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Crazies

Sometimes, I think the biggest mistake of my life was my refusal to go to Pittsburgh.

As a film student at Ohio University, I knew a pack of guys who all were from the Pittsburgh area and who spent their summers working on the crew for George A. Romero. They all insisted that it was fun, even if you had to help sort through the spare parts brought fresh every morning by a local butcher (the zombies in Dawn of the Dead were not just playing around with rubber). Actually, a couple of these guys viewed that as part of the fun.

It wouldn't be until a few years later (when I finally got to see most of Romero's movies) that I realized that I should have gone. Romero is, quite simply, one of the major artists of the contemporary American cinema. An extremely individualistic filmmaker, Romero has followed his own vision with much of the same lonely sense of dedication as was pursued by Ed Harris' character in Romero's production of Knightriders (a movie that is Romero's key statement on his own work).

Unfortunately, Romero's artistic gift has been far greater than his ability to find a good distributor. The vast majority of his movies have either gone barely released or basically unreleased thanks to a long string of really bad distribution companies. Even when his production of Martin garnered a surprisingly strong amount of critical reviews during a brief run in New York, the distributor merely deep-sixed the movie into some Southern drive-ins where it vanished from view.

Which may explain why Romero is now making his living by selling the rights to his movie for modern re-makes. The original Dawn of the Dead may be infinitely superior in every way to the recent re-do, but the second version is the one that got widely distributed. The same will undoubtedly be true of the new version of his 1973 masterpiece The Crazies. But if you really want a strong gory taste of total paranoia, I strongly recommend locating a copy of Romero's movie.

In some ways, The Crazies can be viewed as a re-working of The Night of the Living Dead with the zombies replaced by the crazed victims of a military biological warfare weapon that has been accidentally discharged into their water supply. Add in a hefty dose of Nixon-era political paranoia (in which the president would just as soon nuke the town as admit to doing anything wrong) and seasoned with a strong critique of the military (largely taking place within the military's own rank and file as they try to deal with the situation), simmered with a nicely raw presentation of small-town USA values and you get a potent witch's brew of a movie.

So see it before you see the new version.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Fiend Without a Face

There is a long standing debate within the horror genre between the effect of what is shown and what is simply implied. The old RKO producer Val Lewton was the master of suggestion, while the more modern maestro George Romero is an expert of forcing viewers to confront the unbearable.

But the 1958 production of Fiend Without a Face achieves the odd distinction of doing both. If the greatest terror is conceived in one's own head, then why not have brain-sucking critters who are just that, brains (well, brains with the spinal cord still attached).

The movie gets tremendous effect out of a few simple sound-effects, basic stop-motion animation, and a story line just whacked out enough to be a weirdly chilling pipeline into urban folk lore. But the most inspired idea in Fiend Without a Face is the basic realization that you can really freak people out by attacking them with the most critical core component to human anatomy.

Set near a secret U.S. Air base in Canada (though everything was actually filmed in England), Fiend Without a Face starts with a pretty routine military investigation into a series of odd murders among the rural population. The air force major in charge of the investigation (Marshall Thompson) divides his time between re-assuring the locals (a task that he sucks at), noticing strange details at the crime scene (a job that he is half-baked at) and trying to score with the one available woman in the whole town (a job he is successful at for no obvious reasons).

Meanwhile, the farmers are worried that all of the jets flying in and out are having a bad effect on the cows. Also, the possibility of radiation from the base's hush-hush experiment is becoming noticeable. Then there is the slight problem of people turning up dead with their brains sucked out. Fortunately for the U.S. Military, most of the farmers are more concerned about the cows.

What really works in Fiend Without a Face is pure primal fear. That and a hefty dose of Cold War paranoia which under lies most of the movie. The brain-suckers of the story presents a near perfect pulp summation of 1950s' anxieties. Once they become visible, the nasty creepy-crawlies also tap deep into a well-served sense of the gross. These are just some of the reasons why Fiend Without a Face remains a cockamamie classic.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Invasion of the Saucer Men

A good archaeologist often learns more about a lost civilization from its trash than from its art. That is why the typical B-movie from the 1950s tell us more about the Golden Age of Eisenhower than any twenty epic productions of that period.

Which is also why Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) is a trash treasure-trove of the period. Cheaply produced and incredibly dumb, Invasion of the Saucer Men is also effectively spooky and indescribably fun. The movie is both god-awful and divinely inspired as it reveals the frayed threads behind the button-down minds of the period.

The plot is pretty straight forward. Invading aliens with large bubble heads attack teenagers at a lovers' lane in their attempt to conquer the earth. Pretty simple, very short, and extremely nonsensical. While the fate of the planet hangs in the balance, two teens (Steven Terrill and Gloria Castillo) are able to stop necking long enough to save the world. Meanwhile, a secret task force from the U.S. Army (two officers in search of the clue bus) ponders the defense implications of the whole incident.

Added to the mix is a pre-Batman Frank Gorshin as a booze-hound of a traveling salesman whose liquor consumption defies the alien menace (the short bulb-heads kill by using needles in their fingers to inject victims with massive amounts of pure alcohol). The more they inject him, the more he needs a chaser.

The movie offers a predictable mix of randy kids and fumbling adults. But it also offers a low-key but surprisingly more seamy view of small-town USA. The setting is largely a vast wasteland of sleazy bars and rambling corn fields, barely enlivened by the local drive-in. It weirdly prefigures The Last Picture Show in its latent sense of impending decay.

Invasion of the Saucer Men was directed by Edward L. Cahn, a man whose career never left the bottom of the barrel. Ironically, he would also directed the 1958 horror film It! The Terror From Beyond Space which ultimately served as the direct inspiration for the movie Alien. Cahn remains a curious but notable footnote in Sci Fi history.

With a running time of 69 minutes, Invasion of the Saucer Men manages to not wear out its welcome. Instead, it remains a genuinely scary delight.