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Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems

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Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Potpourri

Movies Due for a Revisit

I’ve been doing this series by genre but as candidate titles came to mind, it occurred to me that some of them are one-offs, not fitting well – or at all — into a particular genre.  So, that said, some odds and ends…

A Boy and His Dog
Image: LQ/Jaf Productions

A Boy and His Dog (1975)

d. L.Q. Jones
w.  L.Q. Jones, Alvy Moore, Wayne Cruseturner (uncredited), based on the novella by Harlan Ellison.

This year we mourned the loss of colorful character actor L.Q. Jones.  But while he’s remembered for his countless TV and film appearances, ol’ L.Q. very occasionally dabbled in directing – as in you could count his forays on one hand and still have fingers left over — yet one of those rare efforts — this one — went on to become a cult classic.

It’s a post-apocalyptic 2024, the remains of Phoenix, Arizona lie buried, the sands above crossed by scavenging bands and “solos” digging into the covered ruins for food and ammunition…and, since most of the survivors tend to be male, a warm female body.  Vic (Don Johnson) is one of the solo nomads, his only companion “Blood,” his dog (drolly voiced by Tim McIntire, but played by the same adorable scruffy mutt that played “Benji”) with whom he has a telepathic connection.  Vic finds Quilla June (Susanne Benton), who, much to his glee — and in an apparent rarity under the bleak circumstances — is a willing connubial partner, but, apparently, only to bait him into a bizarre, flag-waving subterranean society that has gone as sterile in procreation as it has in its thinking, and which needs the vital Vic’s ’nads to keep the race going.

Harlan Ellison began the task of adapting his novella but hit a wall, after which Jones and Alvy Moore, one of the supporting actors in the film as well as its producer, finished the job.  There are mixed stories about how Ellison viewed the finished product.  Some sources say the characteristically cranky author initially praised the adaptation, others say that over time he became more critical, but all say that he hated the film’s closing line (no, I’m not going to give it away) even though he came to realize audiences loved it.

Reviews at the time were also mixed, some reviewers plugging into the offbeat, dark comedy, others were put off by it as well as a slant some saw as decidedly misogynistic, some were jarred by the change in tone from the film’s earlier Mad Max-esque scenes (supposedly this film was an inspiration for George Miller’s film) to the underground scenes which play like a Twilight Zoney-comic parody of Disneyland Main Street idylls.  Although the film was a box office flop on its release, it did pick up a Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation,” and Johnson shared a Golden Scroll for Best Actor with James Caan (the latter earned his for Rollerball [1975]) and go on to become a sci fi cult piece.

Warning:  even for its time, the film was deliberately un-PC and sexist, but it all fit a darkly comic vision of the days after The Day After.

The Glory Guys (1965)
Image: United Artists

The Glory Guys (1965)

d.  Arnold Laven
w.  Sam Peckinpah, based on the novel The Dice of God by Hoffman Birney.

A Western teetering between being an ok formula cavalry pic and something better, it’s hard to figure out why it doesn’t ultimately tip over into the latter.  To that end, maybe it’s worth comparing it to Major Dundee, another cavalry film Peckinpah co-wrote and directed released the same year.

Maybe it’s a lack of star wattage at the top.  Dundee gave us Charlton Heston and Richard Harris backed up by a lot of Familiar Faces from Peckinpah’s stock company — Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Dub Taylor, John Davis Chandler, R.G. Armstrong – giving the film a richness and a texture Guys doesn’t have.  Glory Guys leads Tom Tryon and Harve Presnell are solid enough, and there’s Peckinpah fave Slim Pickens doing a fine job as Tryon’s top sergeant, and James Caan hamming it up as a smart-mouthed Irish immigrant, but the same electric dynamism existing in the duel of personalities between Heston and Harris isn’t there.  Maybe it’s the gooey romance running through Guys (although one intrudes late in Dundee and was always considered one of that film’s weak spots).  Maybe it’s Riz Ortolani’s cheesy sounding score (while Dundee’s by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s is nothing to brag about either, it does have a fuller, more orchestral sound).  Or maybe it’s as simple as Sam Peckinpah didn’t direct it, for despite the times Dundee falls short, over the years it’s come to be considered a flawed but noteworthy part of the director’s canon.  And Guys?  Not so much.

The story is a fictionalized take on the Custer disaster at the Little Big Horn.  Tryon is cavalry captain Harrod, recently transferred to the command of General McCabe (Andrew Duggan) with whom he has a bad history (Harrod has never hidden his feelings about how McCabe had allowed one of his units to be slaughtered in a previous engagement in order to position himself for a victory).  Still, the general sees Harrod as the kind of fine cavalryman who can whip new recruits into shape in time for an upcoming campaign (although Harrod suspects it’ll be his turn to act as bait for McCabe glory-hunting).  Harrod is also involved with the widow Lou Woodard, while scout Sol Rogers (Presnell) has competing designs in that area.  This provides the basis for the two to punch each other’s lights out in a room-destroying brawl which, in that way peculiar to these kinds of manly-men-doing-manly-things movies, creates a begrudging respect between the two men.

It may come off as Peckinpah light, but there are flashes of that Peckinpah edge:  Harrod’s resignation to his probable fate under McCabe’s command, backing out of a romance he believes is pointless as he’s sure McCabe is taking him on a death march; bits of dark cynicism in the dialogue delivered with a simplicity which still manages a sort of eloquence (Slim Pickens looking out over a hillside strewn with the corpses of massacred cavalrymen:  “That’s one way to get written up in the papers.”).  Even that respect between adversaries has a Peckinpahesque tinge to it (even if it’s couched in the corn of romantic adversaries).  

I suppose what’s missing is – and I don’t know any better way to put this – a feel, but one that Peckinpah himself wasn’t capable of executing at the time.  It’s worth noting that Peckinpah had written the script in the late 1950s for Levy-Gardner-Laven for whom he would later develop the TV series The Rifleman.  That in mind, it’s not hard to consider The Glory Guys as sort of a first pass at the material that would later become Major Dundee.

Still, for all my carping, there’s enough fun stuff, and just enough Peckinpah touches, to make this better than a routine cavalry pic.  There are some truly impressive grand-scale action scenes, Caan and Pickens are a pleasure to watch, Michael Anderson, Jr. is there curiously playing the same sort of Parsifal innocent he plays in Dundee.  I guess I’m recommending the flick because it feels like it’s just a few strokes away from being a Major Dundee (which itself is just a few strokes away from being the Peckinpah movie it could’ve been).

Casino Royale (1967)
Image: Columbia Pictures

Casino Royale (1967)

d.  John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, Joe McGrath, Val Guest, Richard Talmadge
(uncredited) w. Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, Michael Sayers/uncredited – Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, George Mandel, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, Peter Sellers, Val Guest, Terry Southern, based on the novel by Ian Fleming.

There’s no two ways about it:  Casino Royale — not the 2006 Daniel Craig version — is a mess.  An incredible mess.  An outrageous, complete, total, utter, and thoroughly incomprehensible mess.  But like a fifty-two-car pile-up, it’s a fascinating mess!

Hey, how could it not be a mess!  Five (credited) directors, three credited screenwriters and an army of credited/uncredited writers plus whatever stuff some of the cast threw in, like Woody Allen’s ad libs and Orson Welles wanting a chance to showboat his magic skills.  The production was so chaotic it’s (for the time) fat $6 million budget would double to $12 million, making it one of the most expensive movies made up to that time (point of comparison:  that’s the same amount it cost to make Roman era epic Spartacus [1960])  The insane production gave producer Charles K. Feldman heart problems so severe he died a year after the film’s release.  Peter Sellers’ behavior on the shoot was so bad he was fired before all his scenes could be filmed and the production had to cobble together bits and pieces and do some tricky editing to finish out his part.  And, on top of it all, the movie doesn’t really make much sense.  Yes, it’s a complete, utter, top-to-bottom mess.  Oh, but what a glorious mess!

The movie does have a plot, sort of, which barely resembles the Ian Fleming source novel (Fleming’s first James Bond book).  The plot, such as it is, has criminal organization SMERSH knocking off MI 6 epies.  MI 6 box M (John Huston) decides to coax James Bond (David Niven who, ironically, had always been Fleming’s idea of who should’ve played Bond) out of retirement to combat the threat.  Bond’s counter-strategy is to recruit a new group of spies and confuse the enemy by dubbing them all James Bond 007.  And then — …  Well, to say things then get confused is a gross understatement.  Peter Sellers’ Bond plays baccarat with SMERSH villain Orson Welles, although I’m not quite sure why, and then there’s another tangent where Niven’s Bond recruits his illegitimate daughter (Joanna Pettet) whose mother was famed German spy Mata Hari (I know; Mata Hari was a WW I spy executed in 1917 which means that, at the youngest, her daughter would be fifty years old instead of Pettet’s twenty-five, and if that doesn’t make sense…  Surprise!).  And then…and then…  Forget it, doesn’t matter.

So why am I recommending this movie?  It is so consistently a mess that the messiness seems to be a plan.  Everything that’s wrong with the movie – the changes in style and tone from one director to another, from sly parody to outright farce to absurdism – all seems of a piece.  It’s like one of those Monty Python sketches that completely derails from reality and goes off deliriously into the nonsensible.  Or maybe it’s more like one of the Marx Brothers’ more off-the-wall flicks, like Duck Soup (1933)…or like those weird boundary-busting non-linear movies some of the stoners were playing around with at the time, like Head (1968) or Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels (1971)…except this one is more fun and (paradoxically) more (if only slightly) structured.  And then it’s got a fascinating 1960s pop art look, a bouncy Burt Bacharach score, and trust me, you never know where it’s going because I don’t think anyone involved knew where it was going.

The story behind the movie is fascinating.  Because it was Fleming’s first novel and he needed money, he sold off the rights early (and cheaply) before the Albert Broccoli/Harry Saltzman combine started glomming up the rights to all of the Bond books.  Feldman tried to make a co-production deal with Broccoli/Saltzman but having had a bad experience on another co-production (Thunderball [1965]), B & S passed.  Feldman though he couldn’t go head-to-head with the legit Bonds so decided to do Casino as a parody which, it’s reported, came as a surprise to some of the cast who’d already signed on.

Here’s the kicker:  despite taking a critical pounding on its release, the movie did make money…somehow.

It’s not a great movie.  In fact, in a lot of ways it’s not much of a movie at all.  It’s more of an experience, a dive into 1960s deconstructive pseudo-hipness that’s hard to turn away from.

The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)
Image: Paramount Pictures

The Sterile Cuckoo (1969)

d. alan j. pakula (also co-produced) w. Alvin Sargent

I’m not much on love stories.  Most of them tend to be manipulative, predictable, gooey.   Oh, these two completely mismatched souls wind up together?  Smack me, never would’ve guessed that’s how it’d come out…because I’m from Mars and I’ve never seen one of these follow-the-recipe smooch-fests before.  I’m even less into teen love stories which elevate teen crushes to grand and even gooier romances.

But among them, The Sterile Cuckoo is a painfully, heartbreakingly honest look at a first semi-adult love, and it is in its steadfast determination not to sugarcoat this most intimate of human interactions at the most fragile and awkward period in our emotional lives that makes it touching and affecting in a way most love stories can’t attain.

Jerry (Wendell Burton) is off to college where he meets free-spirited, bluntly honest Pookie (Liza Minelli).  Bit by bit, Pookie wears down Jerry’s resistance to her unrestrained ways, they fall in love.  But Jerry sometimes feels suffocated by Pookie’s neediness.  Things become even more strained when Pookie tells him she may be pregnant (or not — the film never declares if she was mistaken, misleading, or even possibly had an abortion).  Pookie feels the distance growing between them, becomes graspingly desperate to keep things going but that only strains things still more.  If you’ve ever had a freshman romance, you can probably – and unhappily — guess where this is going.

It’s not a movie of grand gestures, nobody’s standing out in the rain holding up a boom box making somebody’s heart swoon with the best of all mix tapes.  It’s a story of two very real, very life-sized, very recognizable young people, on their own for the first time, grappling with what is probably their first serious relationship, and then floundering through that awful period after the initial passion fades and individuals become more uncomfortably clear-eyed about who they’re involved with.

Filmed in 1967, the movie seems disconnected from its time; more in tune with the early Kennedy years (the source novel was published in pre-hippy 1965 and the movie is in that vein), but from a remove of fifty-five years, that hardly.seems to matter.  What does matter is that anyone who has ever been in a relationship where one is in love and the other only in like (and a fading like at that) can’t help but feel a pang of the heart watching The Sterile Cuckoo.

Where’s Poppa? (1970)
Image: United Artists

Where’s Poppa? (1970)

c.  Carl Reiner w.  Robert Klane based on his novel

Check your woke coat and political correctness hat at the door, because they’ll be an ill fit here.  Where’s Poppa? came out of a time when story conventions, boundaries, and even the social norms of good taste where under open assault.  Remember:  this is the same era of Blazing Saddles (1974), a movie Blazing’s director Mel Brooks has often said couldn’t be made today.  It’s the era of Network (1976) and underground flicks like Putney Swope (1969) breaking above ground.  So, whether the jokes are about race, bizarre sex, disprespect for the elderly, Jewish mommas, or just how insane New York City was in the ’60s-’70s, if you’re not ready to go along for a ribald, deliberately offensive ride, give this nothing-I-mean-absolutely-nothing-is-sacred dark comedy a pass.

George Segal is Gordon Hocheiser whose law career is going down the toilet because the demands of taking care of his senile mother (Ruth Gordon) have pretty much destroyed his life.  He can’t put her in a home — as his brother (Ron Liebman) regularly reminds him, playing on his brother’s sense of guilt to keep him from bringing Momma to his house — because of a promise made to Poppa on Poppa’s death bed.  But the last straw is when Gordon hires yet another nurse (Momma Hocheiser is legendary among the home care crowd) — sweet but inept Louise (Trish Van Devere) — to take care of his mother and the two find themselves falling in love with each other.  How well does that go when Gordon introduces her to his mother?  As he explains to his brother who shows up when Gordon threatens to throw Momma out the window, “I had a girl up here, Sid…and she fucked it up!”  Which she did by pulling down Gordon’s pants to kiss him on his ass demonstrating to Louise how she could always identify her boys by their respective tuckuses.

Looked back on from today, it’s seems an uncharacteristic offering from Carl Reiner.  Prior, he was best known as the creator of the sunny-faced The Dick Van Dyke Show, but in the early 1960s, he expanded into features with a string of critically-respected box office stiffs:  Enter Laughing (1967), The Comic (1969), and then Where’s Poppa?  What they all had in common was an acidic dark humor, a deep dive into awkwardness and bad breaks, which played poorly on theatrical release (although they gained respect in later years).  Reiner would finally find commercial success on the big screen going lighter with the likes of Oh, God! (1977) and The Jerk (1979).

I get it; it’s about professional survival.  But no offense to his later work, there was rarely a moment as funny in a Reiner movie as George Segal brandishing the hammer he used to bang out the wooden blocks he uses to keep Momma in her bedroom, and explaining to her that he had a female visitor.

Gordon:  She’s not just another nurse, Ma. It means a whole lot to me, Ma. And I want you to know that if you mess this one up for me, I’m gonna punch your fuckin’ heart out. Got it?

Momma:  Such a nice boy.

Roger Ebert probably framed the flick best at the time when he wrote, in his review:  “Go if you want to laugh and like being offended.”

Click here for all the articles in this series.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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