Up from the Depths (of the terlet)

Twice the fins, for twice the fun! No.

Nothing scares you like the stuff that scared you as a kid. Some of my favorite movies remain the ones I sneak-watched by peeking out the door of my bedroom at the tender age of 8. Alien. The Thing. Up from the Depths… one of these things is not like the other, you say? Well, I dug up this fossilized turd from the ’70s to re-watch it, and damn, this ripoff is so far from Jaws that it makes Jaws 3-D look like a masterpiece.

The director letting you know he’s gonna have fun with this…

Set on the fictional Hawaiian isle of Mahu, this killer fish picture by the writer of Death Race 2000 and Little Shop of Horrors shows that he should have stuck to writing. It begins with a pretty girl diving alone while a Peter Fonda lookalike lounges in the boat. Scary music thumps at us, like the Cookie Monster playing the piano, as she swims through craggy reefs. Suddenly she turns around and poof, blood in the water! Severed arm in the water! The boat dude- who later turns out to be a scientist- notices the seas roiling around the boat, and dumps his brandy snifter to scoop up some bloody water. I wish he’d have drank it and done a spit-take, but no such luck.

I asked for a Bloody Mary, but this is ridiculous!

Later on the beach, some annoying fat rich tourists get slimed with innards that the dorky hotel director- who looks remarkably like Ted the Lawyer from “Scrubs”- tells him is chum. Yeah, human chum. As El Dorko Mr. Forbes rants to sexy gal Rachel, our eye candy for this picture, and they come upon a severed shark’s head on the beach. He thinks it’s a prank played by the Captain Earl and Greg, two swindlers who take folks looking for the “Kahuna Maru,” a shipwreck containing stuff like “an ivory and jade handled samurai sword, work like eight hundred bucks.” The Captain sounds like a cross between Jack Elam and Burl Ives doing an impression of Dr. Gonzo. His assistant Greg, he of the impressive muttonchop sideburns, plants cheap treasure on the wreck for their marks to find later. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

Jimmy Buffet as a young douche

Next, a French tourist gets pulled into the water while taking photos of a young hottie, and large fins are spotted by kids on the glass bottomed boat. One of the local divers finds a severed hand, but Forbes tells him to throw it away, since it wasn’t found on his property. The dorky hotel guy has the best lines, though. “There are no sharks in the Hawaiian archipelago!” “The ocean is fine! I go in it all the time! I drink it!” Tropical Palace, situated on the lovely island of Mahu- which is obviously between Maui and Oahu- seems to encompass the whole island, have no police or security, and is peopled with strange, dubbed people. I love the little touches, like when the cook is roasting a pig, some guy in a big floppy hat walks by and says, “Remember what I said! Don’t cook it too long, or it’ll shrink!”
“Hey, the fish were there first!” says the scientist, who of course wants to study it, and become famous, even if that means letting it eat a bunch of bathers. After the first attack, when the huge grouper-like prop smashes a gondola and chomps a bunch of cliff divers, he rescues the known characters and leaves the poor native divers to hang on the sides of the rocks like bait. My favorite scene is of course the gratuitous titty interlude, where a photographer is doing a shoot with a leggy model. Hey, I was like 10 when I first saw this. Gimme a break. She first poses on a net on a catamaran, and then scuba dives topless, enraging the fish’s delicate sensibilities. Either that or her buoyant boobies look like puffer fish, its natural prey. No one seems to care that the model and photographer just got eaten; they don’t even try to grab her hand as it reaches from the water! Now, talk about the fragility of memory. I distinctly remembered her severed boob and the camera floating to the bottom, the flash going off as it bounced along the rocks. But I guess even this movie had limits. So I guess that says more about my morbid imagination than horrible movies of the late ’70s.
Greg and the scientist’s flunky, armed with an M16 and a shotgun, try to gun it down from dock, but it rams the pilings and chomps on one of them. “Oh my God, it’s a monster fish!!!” Everyone runs from the water, and keeps running, through the luau, the Tiki bar, and beyond, as the Thurston Howell lookalikes watch with disinterest. A husband slaps his wife, yelling at her, “fish can’t walk!!” “But everybody’s running!!” “Fish can’t run either!!”
Which to me, was the best part of the whole movie. It’s sort of like a cross between Black Lizard’s muddled Club Dread and well, any number of Jaws ripoffs, because it doesn’t take itself seriously. Jaws gave us good reason to go into the water- the shark was killing not just tourists, but the town’s livelihood, and they hire shark-hunter Quint to put himself in harm’s way. Brody and Hooper have their own reasons; knowledge and conquering fear. But in any number of copycats, you could just stay the hell out of the water, have a damn drink by the pool and forget about it. Even a movie this lousy knows that, and makes good jokes out of it.

When Forbes offers a thousand dollar reward for whoever kills the fish, the middle-aged tourists grab the spears from the Tiki lounge to go after it in a drunken stupor. Scuba divers with spearguns, hunters with rifles and crossbows, and of course, the ubiquitous Japanese tourist with nothing but a towel wrapped sumo style, sunglasses, and a samurai sword. But the best of all are the rednecks with the homemade propane flamethrower. That works as well as expected. Another favorite is when a diver gets bitten, without his wetsuit being punctured. “His insides are all busted.” This time, the fish retracted its teeth and gummed him to death. But the best part is that they use his body as bait! They wrap him up with plastic explosive, and go trolling with the corpse. So despite the lousy production values and inane dialogue, this slapdash piece of craptacular celluloid has its redeeming qualities. Sure, Quint used Hoopah as bait, but would he have used his corpse for chum? Yeah, I’m pretty sure he would’ve, actually.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? Fish Movie!
Quotability Rating: There are no quotes in the Hawaiian Archipelago!
Cheese Factor: There is no cheese in the Hawaiian Archipelago!
High Points: The goofs
Low Point: My own depraved imagination
Gratuitous Boobies: Lots

Not Me, the movie: The Other

Anyone still read Family Circus? Well, there’s a ghost kid in it named “Not Me,” who does all the bad things the kids don’t want to get caught doing. Who did it? “Not Me!” haw, haw. Well, 1972’s The Other, based on Thomas Tryon’s novel, is about a kid named Niles whose twin brother Holland died a few months ago. But he still sees him. Plays with him. And gets blamed for the bad stuff Holland does…
Directed by Robert Mulligan of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, the 1935 rural setting is rich and utterly believable. Bright colors, and a low camera put us in the world of an 8 year old boy growing up there. We see everything through Niles’s eyes. And the film’s chilling success is in depicting a young psychopath in the idyllic yesteryear of our beloved past. This is A Christmas Story with a Ralphie who’d grow up to be the faceless slasher from Clark’s other masterpiece, Black Christmas. He also seems to have the sight- able to predict storms, and his witch-wise grandma Ada teaches him to spirit-see through a crow. This plays out as the superstitious foolery of rural childhood, but Niles has a morbid streak that’s hard to ignore.
Bad things start to happen around town. A little snitch named Piggy- bespectacled like his namesake in Lord of the Flies– jumps into a haystack that has a pitchfork hidden in it. When Niles’s mother finds his treasured trinket- the ring that was supposed to be buried with his brother- and the desiccated finger it was on- she falls down the stairs after struggling with him. She’s paralyzed, mute and helpless. Only Grandma Ada around now… and she thinks Niles talking to Holland is just a game to assuage his grief. Old Lady Rose, who scolded Niles for trying to steal her preserves, is found dead in her home. And then relatives come with a baby girl, who gets all the attention…
The film is daring and relentless in showing us little Niles and his childhood exploits, and framing them in a simple coming of age memoir. Is he haunted by the ghost of his evil brother- who died trying to throw a cat down a well- or were they both little bastards? Is he using Holland as his “Not Me,” or is it a bizarre grieving mechanism? Holland seems to taunt Niles from beyond the grave, and perhaps he is so traumatized that he’s making his evil brother’s legacy live on. Or perhaps Niles was the one who fell down the well, and Holland’s playing a trick on us all. He sure loves tricks; after a trip to the traveling circus, and getting frightened by a particularly scary freak, he is mystified by the magician’s swords in the box trick. Especially when he sees the performer sneak out of the box below stage.
A favorite movie of mine from the ’50s was The Bad Seed, about an evil little girl who kills out of jealousy and greed; the perfect picture of a young psychopath. Due to the Code, she had to be punished, so the ending was changed so she dies at the end. It’s one of the biggest cinematic ripoffs, and it’s best to stop watching before it happens. The same occurred with the TV cut of The Other; a voiceover was added. Thankfully that cut seems to have disappeared, and we get a terrifying, open ending as Grandma Ada realizes what her beloved grandson has become. This is one of the best “evil child” movies and doesn’t cheap the ending by making Niles a dwarf prostitute. But it does leave us to wonder if he’s evil, crazy, haunted, or all three. And that makes for a wonderful horror film.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

I often wonder why a movie gets remade. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three was based on a novel by and starred Walter Matthau as a Transit Police Lieutenant, and Robert Shaw as a mercenary leading a group of hijackers who do the impossible or idiotic; they take a New York City subway train hostage and hold it for ransom. It’s a perfectly enjoyable thriller, but watching it again, it seems like it lacks something. Let me see if I can pinpoint what that is.
The movie casts a long shadow- the hijackers’ use of color code names like Mr. Blue (Shaw) and Mr. Gray was aped in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and the ineffectual mayor, a dig at Mayor John Lindsay, cemented the useless governmental leader character used in such movies ever since. The movie’s real strength is how it depicts ’70s New York City cynicism and dread; the malaise under Mayor Lindsay was palpable, and even today people remember the murder rate that was 10x what it is today, how the D train was called the “Death Train,” and how we all laughed when Disney was going to Times Square- which was a haven for peep shows, streetwalkers, and hustlers! Its fantastic score by David Shire, and the strong performances by leads Matthau and Shaw solidify its presence. Surprisingly for a movie of this kind, it is a mood picture more than a story picture, and maybe that’s why something seems like it is missing. Perhaps I’m missing the forest for the trees.
At first, the MTA workers- played brilliantly by Jerry Stiller and Tom Pedi, that gravelly voiced fireplug from The Naked City)- think it will be a normal day. The control room set is a sound stage but you wouldn’t know it, from how well constructed it is. At first the production didn’t have the blessing of the Transit Authority, who were concerned about copycat crimes- but after paying $275,000 for the use of the closed Court Street station in Brooklyn and $75,000 in “hijack insurance,” they were allowed to use NYC Subway cars. Nothing else would do.
Part of the film’s lasting appeal was the authenticity. The hijack was on the 1:23pm #6 train, and while it was filmed on abandoned track, nothing looks like a grimy old New York subway car. Models of this vintage are still in use today, so the film barely feels dated except for ’70s clothes and cars; the train is populated with a diverse group of unnamed stereotypes that manage to not be annoying or offensive. The Hooker, the Old Man, the Doctor, the Lady Who No Speak English. Amusing that the Doctor is on the train; the ’70s was when the subway was no longer the great democratic equalizer in town, when suits and the upper crust gave it up for cabs. Of course, nowadays billionaire Mayor Bloomberg rides the subway to work every day as a symbolic gesture, a good one I might add. It would have been something, if the recent remake had his car get hijacked…
But back to the original. Robert Shaw is no-nonsense, coldly calculating and ruthless. He demands from the authorities one million dollars, or he will kill a hostage. Matthau gets the wheels turning with the mayor, the money-counting machines clickety clack to Shire’s rousing score, and a cop car races through mid-day traffic to deliver the ransom. There’s tension between Shaw and one of his men, an ex-mob hitter with an itchy trigger finger; a disgruntled motorman who came up with the plan is along for the ride, but we lack any background for them and it’s very difficult to care. Shaw sure tries hard, building a character out of thin air, whose finale is one of the most memorable in ’70s film. Matthau is about as cool as can be, dismissing his usual humor and going for a more authoritative demeanor.

Serenity now

Where the film stumbles is how everyone is so shocked that a subway was hijacked; someone jokes that they’re gonna escape with it to Cuba. They try to generate suspense by musing about how the gunmen will escape, but the result isn’t all that surprising or ingenious; they foil the train’s dead man switch as a diversion, and escape from one of a thousand subway exists in the underground labyrinth beneath the city. From there, things fall apart very quickly and the pacing gets too compressed, like the end of a Shakespeare play where he kills everyone off to tie loose ends. The best is of course Shaw, when faced with life in prison, makes his own electric chair out of the third rail. Damn, that’s hardcore; but I wanted a prequel, we didn’t get to know him long enough or see him do enough larger-than-life stunts for him to disappear so quickly.
The film’s well-known ending is a bit of a cop-out, as Stiller and Matthau track down the disgruntled motorman as a suspect, since they determine it was an inside job. It just feels too easy, and I’m not sure “he has a cold” would be enough circumstantial evidence to hold up in court. Of course, this is a guy dumb enough to roll around in bed with his share of the ransom, so he probably has his memoirs, “How I Planned the Taking of Pelham 123” written in a drawer somewhere. Like I said, the plot isn’t what you’ll remember here. Seeing Matthau and Shaw at the top of their game, and Jerry Stiller show surprisingly good character actor chops is well worth the running time. No offense, Denzel and Travolta were perfectly horrible choices to match them. Maybe Liam Neeson and Don Cheadle could have hacked it.


According to Wikipedia, the film did great in cities that had subways, but flopped everywhere else. I think part of its lasting influence is the railfan vote, and just how well it captures the ’70s cynicism, paranoia and lack of faith in government. The little guy verses the dummies up top; probably best executed since in Die Hard, where even the twinkie-eating flatfoot jokes about the FBI doing everything by the playbook. This minor ’70s thriller classic is worth seeing again, if only to see Shaw and Matthau at the top of their game.


Michael "the" Mann – Thief

This is part of the Michael Mann blogathon being held at J.D.’s excellent Radiator Heaven movie blog, in anticipation for the upcoming film Public Enemies.

“I am the last guy in the world that you wanna fuck with.”

The first movie by Michael Mann that I watched was Thief, starring James Caan. I was young and unsure of why I liked it; it’s grittiness, the technical aspect of the safe-cracking and high-end burglaries. The spellbinding soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The complete lack of spoon-feeding or pandering to the audience.

The film opens with a man in listening to a police scanner in a parked car, while another in a jumpsuit hoists a huge drill to a safe and begins opening it. As the bit screws through the metal and reveals the workings inside, the camera zips in, and we watch the gears smashed to bits with a chisel. The cracker is masked with goggles, working diligently. He speaks to his quiet compatriots in quick staccato questions, utter minimalism. Another man works a bevy of volt meters on the security system. Quickly, diamonds are looted, they leave the scene with such precision that calling it “military” would seem insulting, and drive off in separate cars into the rain-puddled night streets.
With barely a word spoken, Mann has already gripped us. Audiences have always loved seeing criminals pull off a heist, and no frills are needed. With characteristic laconic style we’re introduced to Frank the jewel thief’s “normal life,” owner of a car dealership. The perfect job for a criminal who sees civilians, those outside “the life,” as marks and suckers. The entirety of the film is set in this shadow world, one we love to flirt with in the movies. And Mann, like Scorsese would in Goodfellas, perfectly portrays a world of villains who want to cobble together a life that mimics our boring suburban existence, while we go to movies to take a trip into theirs.

The film is partly based on the book The Home Invaders: The Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Chicago jewel thief Frank Hohimer. “Frank” was the pen name of real-life crook Jean Seybold, who served as a consultant on the set along with John Santucci, another thief who also played the crooked cop Urizzi. The book is set mostly in the ’50s and ’60s, so the movie modernized the criminal techniques, and changed Frank’s modus operandi; instead of a home invader stealing rich women’s jewelry collections, he seems to strike jewel distribution houses. This was a wise choice, for it anonymizes the victim and makes it easier for us to like Frank. In the book, he was often holding homeowners at gunpoint for the safe combinations, and the author was long suspected of taking part in the murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of an Illinois Senator. Not quite as glamorous. But the best parts of the book make it to the screen.
Their fence gets whacked by the mob before they get paid; this and continual police harassment by crooked cops wanting a bite of the take lead Frank to consider mobbing up with crime boss Leo, played by Robert Prosky. Like the real crime boss Leo Rugendorf, he doesn’t look the part, but is a ruthless autocrat who uses people up and throws them away when he’s done with them. Frank doesn’t want to join, because he cares about nothing, and that makes him impossible to pressure or hurt. But soon, he will.
Michael Mann’s films often figure on men with a personal code of ethics that leads to their downfall, and Thief is no different. Frank feels a great personal debt to his mentor Okie, based on a real jewel thief who taught Seybold the ropes in prison. He also wants to get back with his estranged girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and have children. His feelings for them lead him to break his stringent code of working freelance. Okie is played by Willie Nelson; Mann continues to use musicians in small roles, and this is one of the best. Okie urges Frank to tell Jessie about his real profession. Lifted right from the book, he tells him “Lie to no one. If there ‘s somebody close to you, you’ll ruin it with a lie. If they’re a stranger, who the fuck are they you gotta lie to them?”
Okie is dying, and wants to spend one day on the outside; it’s Frank’s desire to pay back his mentor, and save a child lost in the juvie system like he was, that leads him to join Leo’s crew. In the diner scene with Weld, we learn everything we need to know about Frank. Caan is known for his anger in the Godfather, but his vulnerability in this scene is palpable. It sets the tone for the film’s grand ending. He explains that you can only be fearless when you care about nothing. This would later transform into Neil McCauley’s more Zen-like “when the heat’s around the corner” ethos in the epic Heat. DeNiro would also take his Yojimbo-like simplicity of action and clear speech from Frank. His desire for a normal life. Frank’s a tough as nails man; we’ve seen him stare down mobsters and pull his .45, but his weakness, his desire to have a family with his wife cuts through all that, and makes him seem almost like a young boy.
As he plans the job for Leo, he begins to reap the benefits. A new house. Strings pulled to get his mentor Okla released due to his age and health. A baby adopted, despite his 10 year conviction. Frank’s background as a juvenile delinquent makes him yearn to save an orphaned child from the same fate. He says, “I was state raised! You see 8 by 4 green walls long enough, you tell ’em “my life is yours!” Reminiscent of Andrew Vachss‘s Burke character, Caan embodies the hard-edged, serious ex-con who values every second of his time outside prison. Caan explains in the DVD commentary, “I don’t use a single contraction in the entire film.” This makes Frank feel like a man who doesn’t say anything he doesn’t mean to the core of his being. “If you don’t use contractions, you are less likely to be misunderstood. You never have to repeat yourself.”

It was filmed in Mann’s hometown of Chicago and laden with its locations and jazz; many of the best jewel snatching crews of the time came from Chicago, specifically the Smith Park neighborhood called “the Patch.” He used his connections to consult with real professional thieves and Chicago police; Dennis Farina was ex-Chicago PD, and though he barely says a word- something bizarre to imagine, for an actor who’d become so memorable for his outbursts- his presence helps add gritty realism to Mann’s style. For example the attention to detail with the firearms- Frank uses an expensive custom long slide .45; Dennis Farina carries a rare HiStandard bullpup semi-auto shotgun, which really can fire as fast as it does. It’s not quick cuts of a single shot, it’s all 5 shells when he teaches Frank a lesson. James Caan was sent to Jeff Cooper’s Gunsite Ranch for two days to go through combat pistol training; you can see it in his rigid isosceles shooting stance.
The centerpiece of the film is the West Coast heist, based on a real job pulled by consultant Joe Santucci. The planning takes weeks, beginning with procuring the “oxy lance” that will be used to cut a door in the front of the custom built safe. All the tools are real, and the first safe we see Caan crack was purchased for him to make his bones on. Even when they pull the cylinder out of a door lock, you can recognize the buster they use, if you’ve ever needed a locksmith. The oxygen lance is real as well, requiring fire extinguishing foam all over the set to keep the sparks from igniting everything. We get a welder’s mask view of the door melting under its 6,000 degree barrage. It’s oddly beautiful, a sparkle shower of diamonds, like the loot inside.
Santucci also plays Sgt. Urizzi, one of the crooked cops who shakes Frank down with a relish that only someone who’s been on the other side of such a conversation can have. He’s the guy Frank continually taunts, mistaking his Italian heritage for Puerto Rican.

You’re a stand-up guy. You’re a real stand-up guy. You got a mouth, you can take a trimming. You could make things easy for everybody. But no. You gotta be a goof. You’re real good. No violence. Strictly professional. I’d probably like you. I’d like to go to the track, ball games. Stuff like that, you know? Frank, there’s ways of doing things that round off the corners, make life easy for everybody. What’s wrong with that? There’s plenty to go around. We know what you take down. We know you got something major coming down soon. But no, you gotta come on like a stiff prick. Who the fuck do you think you are? What’s the matter with you? You got something to say or are you waiting for me to ask you to dance?

Even James Belushi is good here, lacking his later smart-ass demeanor and sneer, playing it very cool. Then again, the comic actor is surrounded by tough guys- ex-cons and ex-cops, and James Caan in a role that makes his iconic appearance as Sonny in The Godfather seem warm and inviting. It was Belushi’s first film, and the debuts of William Petersen, Dennis Farina, John Kapelos, and Robert Prosky; Farina would return in Mann’s “Crime Story” TV series that made his career, and opened the door for “Miami Vice;” William Petersen would star in Mann’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, Manhunter.
The excellent Tangerine Dream soundtrack is what drew me back to this film in the 90’s after I saw Heat. I still have it on vinyl; it’s some of their best work, and “Confrontation,” which plays over the final gunfight and end credits, is an electronic blues lament for a man who threw it all away so he could destroy the man holding his chain. The film is dedicated to Chicago bluesmen Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young, and the film does have the fleeting joy and inevitable sadness of a blues song. Young appears in the club scene where we first meet Jessie.
Tuesday Weld’s role is easily overlooked, but she perfectly captures the moll look and attitude. In a film about men, we’re reminded of James Brown’s pearl of wisdom, “It’s a man’s world, but he made that world for woman.” As soon as Frank and Jessie- and I’m sure naming the characters after the James Gang was no accident- hook up, he calls Leo and says he’ll do a job for him. But he wants to play by his rules, and doesn’t realize that in a Faustian bargain, only one guy sets the rules in the end.
There are three ranting monologues that give Alec Baldwin’s infamous Glengarry Glen Ross “watch” speech a run for its money. When Frank comes out as a criminal to Jessie; When the crooked detective pulls Urizzi off him and tells him why he has to pay up to the cops, and when Leo tells Frank that he owns him, at his plating factory. This last particular scene is quite brutal and Mann films Leo’s face upside down, as Frank sees it, passing on his disorientation to us.

Look. I said fuckin’ look at ‘im! Look at what happened to ya friend ’cause you gotta go against the way the things go down. You treat what I try to do for you like shit? You don’t wanna work for me, what’s wrong with you? And then, you carry a piece, in my house! You one of those burned-out demolished wackos in the joint? You’re scary, because you don’t give a fuck. But don’t come onto me now with your jailhouse bullshit ’cause you are not that guy, dont’chu get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, n’ I own the paper on ya whole fuckin’ life. I’ll put ya cunt wife on the street to be fucked in the ass by niggers and Puerto Ricans. Ya kids mine because I bought ‘it. You got ‘im on loan, he is leased, you are renting him. I’ll whack out ya whole family. People’ll be eatin’ ’em in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say, I run you, there is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned-out, you are busted, or you’re dead… you get it? You got responsibilities – tighten up n’ do it. Clean this mess up, get ‘im outta here. Back to work, Frank.

And to punctuate things, they dump a body in the nitric acid tanks of the electroplating factory. Mann has since trimmed his dialogue down, but he’s also made his stories a lot tighter. Thief is sometimes a bit too obvious, and too quick; as soon as Frank signs up with Leo, he’s walking streets paved with gold. And while his grittiness is solidified, his style is not yet in full flower. Frank’s immediate coldness as he disassembles everything he once cared about is almost too much to bear. The slow-motion explosions may lack panache, but the lack of dialogue as he destroys it all is perfect. The sequence is still one of the most memorable of the film, as Frank writes large his Zen koan about your possessions owning you in fire across the screen. When he confronts Leo at his home, he is a man with nothing; he has thrown Jessie out of his life, and burned everything he owns.
The final confrontation is as brutal and stylized as that of Taxi Driver, as Frank’s singularity of purpose makes him a swift instrument of vengeance. We don’t get a single word from him; he does what he must do, and Mann expertly shows and does not tell. There are little touches; Dennis Farina’s character can’t aim the bullpup shotgun after he’s wounded; Frank wears a protective vest, and tears his shirt to take a look at how it worked. And when it’s over, he walks silently into the night, down the lonely road he finds himself on again. Will he go back to Jessie and his son? We don’t know. Yet we are curiously satisfied, as the Tangerine Dream guitar lament drones through the speakers.
Thief is a singular film that portrays the life of the high-end burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and local Chicago characters, Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. Mann’s style mirrors the blues- a man with nothing, who has something, has it taken away, and sacrifices everything to get it back. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder’s torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, meet night people who come home as the sun rises, who steal riches while we sleep, and get to know an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Mann would go on to more epic tales, but would always return to the American archetype of the lone killer, the man with his code. Hawkeye; Marlowe; the Man with No Name. It’s no mistake that Michael Mann would direct The Last of the Mohicans, which has a long shadow over American literature with the iconic character of Hawkeye. Frank was the mold from which Neil McCauley was made, but you’ll see the same obsession in Will Graham, Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice, Mike Torello of Crime Story, and even in his biopic of Ali. Heat and Manhunter– and certainly Public Enemies with the Dillinger/Purvis face-off- show how similar cops and crooks are, but Thief is the one purely from the crook’s point of view, where there are no good guys. His next film in development, Frankie Machine, is based on a novel by Don Winslow (full review) is a mob picture starring DeNiro as a retired hitter dragged back into the life, when he’d rather surf the morning waves and run his bait shop. Another perfect Mann protagonist, he has old school values and has to ram them through the throats of some new blood who won’t let sleeping dogs lie. I’m pumped to see some ’30s gangster action next weekend, but I wouldn’t mind seeing DeNiro stop treading water and work with a director like Mann again.


Revisiting The Sting

I rented The Sting on VHS ages ago because family said they liked it, and other than Robert Shaw’s excellent performance, it didn’t really grab me. I remember finding the cons too well explained for the rubes. Oh, I was so superior. So when it appeared in HD on Cinemax, I decided to give it another go, because I’ve come to love ’70s period pieces like Paper Moon, and this is one of the big ones.
The script came to be when David S. Ward, then working on the forgotten oddball comedy Steelyard Blues, researching a pickpocketing scene. This led him to the bible of con games, David W. Maurer’s The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It’s an intriguing but dry treatise on the big, or long con that takes part in the second and third acts of the film. A short con, we see in the film’s first scene- the parting of a fool and his money, by appealing to his greed. That’s the heart of all con games, and the heart of The Sting.

We like to think of con games as being a relic of the ’30s and ’40s with bunco squads hunting clever, dapper grifters; but it still goes on today, and it’s much more complex than Bernie Madoff’s rookie scheme. A good con ends with the mark not even knowing he’s been conned, or by the time he does the grifters have evaporated like mist off a lake on a spring morning. The story starts at a bookie joint running late on their money drop; they send a runner with an envelope of cash, who walks outside just as Robert Redford seems to be helping a mugged man get his wallet from a fleeing crook. The best cons make you think you’re the tricky one until you realize you’ve run off with a pig in a poke, and that’s what happens here.
But Luther, an older black man played by Robert Earl Jones, who appeared in Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter, and Redford playing Johnny Hooker- don’t realize they’ve just ripped off an important mobster. When they count the loot they say “we’re millionaires!” and Hooker is soon parted from his share of the take, gambling roulette after picking up his burlesque dancer moll. Luther is the mentor, and chides him for acting like a no class grifter, or a pimp; he’s retiring, but he won’t have a chance to. They robbed Doyle Lonnegan, a shrewd, ruthless mob kingpin played by Robert Shaw, who wants an example made of them. Hooker gets crooked cop Charles Durning, Lt. Snyder, on his back as well. When he goes to warn Luther, it’s too late, but his mentor manages to tell him to find grifter Henry Gondorff before he goes to the big con in the sky.
And that’s just the first 24 minutes. The movie uses title cards and musical interludes for the parts of the big con- the Set-Up, the Hook, the Tale, the Wire, the Shut-out and the Sting. This, along with the fine mix of backlot sets and Chicago locations, saucy burlesque and salty dialogue, gives us both a period feel but reminds us that it’s a pastiche. For the Set-Up, we meet Henry Gondorff– Paul Newman’s character, named after a real con man who invented the “big store” con used in this film- who also has a grudge against Lonnegan. He’s washed up, working the carousel at a carnival. When we meet him, he’s hung over and Hooker throws him into a cold shower. He wants to be taught the long con, because he “don’t know enough about killin‘ to kill him.”

Newman is cool, with his famous knowing grin; Redford plays the young hothead, which I will begrudgingly say he does to perfection. He’s not my favorite of actors, but with his big smile he’s perfect for this role. Newman is frazzled and gray, 10 years after Hud, 7 since Cool Hand Luke, and eases into the older man’s shoes comfortably. They’d played together in another period piece, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and are comfortable together. Newman’s ice blue eyes compliment Redford’s set of sapphires. They put together a huge team of con men to figure an angle on Doyle Lonnegan, an Irishman who doesn’t drink, smoke or chase dames. They settle on an out of date con called “the wire.” It’s still in use today, and was also featured in The Grifters (full review); the trick is that “we” will know the race results, or the stock market prices, a little bit before “everyone else,” and can profit off of it. A sure thing.
But there are no sure things. They find out Lonnegan likes to cheat at poker and plays a big stakes game on a train; time to set the hook, with the whole gang involved. They’ve got Kid Twist, played by the dapper character actor Henry Gould; Ray Walston in the wise but still sly old man role, and Eileen Brennan of Clue and Private Benjamin as Billie, pickpocket supreme. And they hire dozens more. They’ll need them; Shaw plays Lonnegan with shark’s eyes, “like a doll’s eyes,” as he’d famously say a few years later. He’s as cold and merciless as they come, oozing masculine power that would make Tony Soprano piss his boxers. When he means something, he makes sure you understand, ending with “ya follow?”
The script makes him especially brutal just by adding little details to his speech. He made his way up the ladder when his boss was found with “an icepick in his eye.” And when someone gets his ire, he tells his thug Floyd “to take him out back and put one in his ear.” See, that makes it personal. We like our eyes and ears the way they are. His foil is his bodyguard Floyd, the hammer-nosed character actor Charles Dierkop, probably best known as killer Santa from Silent Night, Deadly Night but who’s always been in minor roles in the best gambling films like The Hustler and even Maverick. He’s the cool one who keeps Lonnegan’s temper from exploding, and he brings a naturalism to the role.

I won’t explain the machinations of the many layers of the con they play, it’s too entertaining to watch it unfold, and too boring to explain. But needless to say, at one hour in we’re still riveted, and the game has only just begun. Directed by George Roy Hill, famous for collaborating with Redford and Newman previously as Butch & Sundance, he brings life to the picture with short static shots, jump cuts in the action sequences, and silent montages set to music. For example, we see Hooker flinch from a manicure when he’s being preened to play his role; he’s never gotten one before, he’s small time. And the great chase under and over the Chicago El, and through a Hooverville of shanties. Both are set to Marvin Hamlisch’s unforgettable performance of Scott Joplin ragtime tunes, that oddly enough, would have been about 15 years out of style for the time; Hamlisch composed two Jazz age pieces that fit the period, but it was Joplin’s “The Entertainer” that became a hit we still hear today. My mother had the soundtrack LP, and we loved how it built up in in energy from that playful clarinet to a rollicking piano tune.
The plot gets more complicated and the film plays its own grifts on us, befitting the theme. The FBI comes in, represented by Dana Elcar (the boss in “MacGuyver“) as Agent Polk. Hooker’s loyalty to his dead mentor gets tested against his new bond with Gondorff; he romances a lunch counter girl named Loretta, while dodging a hit man named Salino, still following orders from Lonnegan to wipe out the con man who stole from the runner in the first scene! The colors are bright but not garish; the old times look fresh and new. Bright greenbacks, flashy suits, grungy greasy spoons with blue plate specials. The specter of the Depression haunts the background, as we move from the garish world of top class mobsters to the boarding room flops of the grifters gunning for that big score.
The Sting would go on to win 7 of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for, including Costume Design, Art Direction, Original Score, Film Editing, Screenplay, Best Picture, and Best Director for Hill. Producer Julia Philips would be the first female producer to win a shared Best Picture, and would note in her biography You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again that she felt Robert Shaw saved the picture by accepting the part when Paul Newman flew to London to hand him the script; no one else offered would take the part under Redford and Newman. However, he fought for third billing and a high paycheck, which may have led the producers not to campaign hard enough for him to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Shaw is best remembered for this and Quint the grizzled seaman in Jaws, but he never won an Oscar and was only nominated for A Man for All Seasons as hot-tempered King Henry VIII. And his limp was real; he’d injured his knee playing handball and wore a brace throughout filming.

George Roy Hill is best remembered for his work in the ’60s and ’70s, like the sentimental and cute The World of Henry Orient, where two young girls get a crush on Peter Sellers; the brave failure Slaughterhouse-Five, adapted from Vonnegut’s novel; an epic adaptation of Michener’s Hawaii. Later, he’d direct Slap Shot (full review), one of Newman’s better middle-age period films, and he manages great masses of characters well. The smart casting of grotesques to counteract the pretty faces of Paul and Robert brings a much-needed taste of reality. He’d go on to adapt John Irving’s The World According to Garp that would finally free Robin Williams from “Mork & Mindy,” and finish with the underrated Chevy Chase dark comedy Funny Farm. Not too shabby a run, George.
On second viewing, The Sting‘s greatness is much more evident to me. The film hasn’t changed, but I have. I’m glad to read that David Maurer sued for $10 million, alleging that his meticulously researched book on confidence games, The Big Con, was the basis of the screenplay. He settled out of court. I feel that despite it’s upbeat ending and glamorization of Hooker, Gondorff and their con man kind, it is definitely the equal if not the better of Stephen Frears‘ gritty neonoir The Grifters, based on Jim Thompson’s brutal novel. A prequel was planned, but never came about; The Sting II came out in 1983 with a completely different cast but the same screenwriter, and is best forgotten. But the original is deserving of its classic status, and if you haven’t seen it, you ought to. Its setting makes it timeless and the beautiful Technicolor prints make it look better than a new film. No excuses. In your queue, right now.


The Seven-Ups

Producer Philip D’Antoni gave us three kick-ass cop movies with car chases- Bullitt, The French Connection, and the lesser known The Seven-Ups. About a secret squad of elite police so named because the crooks they catch are guaranteed to be up for 7 or more years in prison, it stars Roy Scheider as the de facto leader of the squad. Reprising his role as Buddy Russo from French Connection, this is his turn to shine. And while this movie is not as groundbreaking as the story of Popeye Doyle, and is directed by D’Antoni himself, it is still one of the best cop movies of the ’70s.
The movie begins with a comic touch- Buddy and his crew are undercover at an antique shop that serves as a drug drop. They distract the owner by clumsily destroying half of the store through slapstick and pratfalls, until uniformed cops come to break things up, and find the dope. It’s a bit silly and uncharacteristic from the rest of the film’s gritty realism, so bear with it, it’s over quick. The real plot involves a pair of crooks who rob and kidnap mobsters for ransom- risky business. This puts the mob on edge, and when they find an undercover cop wearing a wire, they beat him up and think he’s one of the crooks, so they bring him in the trunk to try for a trade, but it all goes pear-shaped.
And when you kill one of the Seven-Ups, you’re gonna get hit back hard. Today, we frown upon things like torturing suspects in their hospital beds by squeezing their oxygen tubes, or breaking into a mob boss’s home and holding a shard of glass to his wife’s throat to make him talk. But in the ’70s, that was edgy and innovative police work! It’s a long way from picking your feet in Poughkeepsie, but this movie is all about the action sequences, and you can easily overlook its faults for how good they are.
The hits on the mob are classic- they get one guy as he goes through a car wash, by locking his suicide doors closed with handcuffs so they can crowbar the trunk open and take the cash, without returning the hostage. But once the Seven-Ups get involved these tough crooks have met their match. Scheider gets in a car chase across uptown Manhattan, including a blistering run up Riverside Drive to the George Washington Bridge. They somehow end up across the Tappan Zee again, but we’ll forgive the geography errors. There’s a great sequence where the bad guys hide behind a bus with shotguns ready, and a great crash under a flatbed. The chase is as lively as those of French Connection and Bullitt, but the movie itself isn’t as groundbreaking.

As much as I love Roy Scheider, the script is more of a standard, if gritty thriller. The stunning ending to French Connection and Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, or Steve McQueen’s ultra-cool hip cop and the insane speeds he took that Mustang 390GT too simply overshadow this solid NYPD crime film. I must say that it is a lot better than French Connection II however. Frankenheimer should have stuck to his strengths. If you enjoy ’70s crime films, this is one of the forgotten classics, and is worth hunting down. It’s the only film D’Antoni directed, and while he is a bit indulgent in the opening sequence, once we get to the meat of the story he shows promise. We sould use him today, as car movies are pretty lame these days.


The Arnold Project #12: Scavenger Hunt

After It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, ensemble road comedies became all the rage, but few if any captured the same magic. Scavenger Hunt is not one of them, but it manages to collect some of the best comic actors of the time and thus keeps a low buzz of enjoyment throughout. It’s a long way in before Arnold shows up as a gym instructor named Lars, and it’s a big step backward from his role in Stay Hungry– he just has a cameo, really, dragging Tony Randall into a fitness regimen when he just wants to steal a medicine ball.
Board game creator Mr. Parker (of Bros. fame) croaks one day while playing games with his sexy nurse, and wills his inheritance to the heirs who complete his challenge- a scavenger hunt! They have to solve the clues and collect the proper “treasures,” as the game goes. Vincent Price is the croaker- he dies playing an analog version of Frogger- and his heirs include:
His servants, with Cleavon Little as the chauffeur, James Coco as the chef, and of course a ditzy French maid and Roddy MacDowall as an effete Brit butler;
Tony Randall with geeky glasses and a gaggle of kids;

Two guys (including Dirk Benedict, “Face” from the A-Team) and their shag van, with an earnestly mourning gal in tow;

His mercenary sister (Cloris Leachman), her idiot son, and Richard Benjamin as her sleazy lawyer; they’re the bad guys if you can’t figure it out;

and Richard Mulligan of “Soap” fame as Dummitz the dopey cab driver.
They get their list and hit the road in Cadillacs, vans, cabs and convertibles, stealing everything from toilets to Jack in the Box heads, Rolls Royce grilles, beehives and carnival prizes. If Tony Randall annoyed you on “The Odd Couple,” you’ll be delighted to watch him try to snatch a beehive. This is the kind of movie where Richard Benjamin steals an old Indian’s dentures, and he shoots arrows at their Cadillac, and tracks them with a tomahawk the whole time.
Cameos are the bread and butter of these films, and that’s where Arnie comes in- along with Ruth Gordon, Scatman Crothers, Steven “Flounder” Furst, and Meat Loaf! The film is elevated by Cleavon Little, best known as Bart from Blazing Saddles, who always brought class to everything he did. It helps that this was directed by Michael Schultz, one of the most prolific black directors, who also brought us The Last Dragon (full review), Car Wash, Cooley High, Krush Groove and that insane Beatles cover musical Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I can watch Scatman Crothers and Ruth Gordon in anything. Here they have a lot of fun, as a security guard who catches Dummitz in a bridal gown, and a saucy old gal with an arsenal full of weapons. Meat Loaf plays Scum, leader of a biker gang. The movie is actually pretty good, and I forgot I was watching for Arnold! Some of the humor is inspired, like when Cleavon & co. get trapped in a school, and try to set off the sprinkler- but the sprinkler catches on fire!
The ending is a bit weak, but all movies of this kind suffer once all the heirs or challengers come together. Mad Mad World topped it all with a crazy scene on a fire truck ladder where all the greedy goofballs got their comeuppance, but Scavenger Hunt opts for a lesson about sharing. It sort of fizzles out, but it’s satisfying to see the good guys win, even if they were thieves too.

Rating: You should not drink… and bake!
(low Arnold content, but otherwise an entertaining bit of ’70s nostalgia)

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