Category Archives: Movies Based on Novels

Careful, He Might Hear You (1983)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Custody battle between sisters.

When his mother dies just a few days after his birth PS (Nicholas Gledhill) moves in with his Aunt Lila (Robyn Nevin) and Uncle George (Peter Whitford). There he has a happy childhood growing up in a working-class neighborhood. Then Lila’s wealthy sister Vanessa (Wendy Hughes) arrives stating she wants custody of the child on weekdays since she has more money and because PS’s absentee father (John Hargreaves) named her as co-guardian. PS doesn’t like going to Vanessa’s as she’s much more rigid and authoritarian forcing him to go to a private school filled with snotty kids and doing other things like taking piano lessons, which he doesn’t like. Vanessa also suffers from a fear of thunderstorms while Lila and George are unemployed making it hard for the judge to decide who the better guardian should be once the battle goes to court.

The film is based on the 1963 novel of the same name written by Sumner Locke Elliot who in turn based it on events of his own life after his mother died just one day after his birth. The film succeeds mainly from the sincere performance of its child star who is quite cute, at times maybe a little too cute, but then surprises the viewer in one completely unexpected moment of nastiness near the end. I also liked the way director Carl Schultz frames of the point-of-view shots where we see things from the child’s height making the adults appear foreboding and like he’s being swallowed up into their world, which is pretty much what happens.

While the film is billed as being this big court battle between two women it really comes-off like a character study of Vanessa, who gets much more screen time and a more of in-depth personality. This is good because Nevin’s character is a bit too basic and offers no real surprises though she does have an unexpected asthma attack while testifying in court, which I felt was a bit over-the-top since this was something that should’ve been introduced earlier if it was going to come into play during a pivotal moment. Hughes though is excellent. She had been only in supporting roles up to this point, mainly that of youthful girlfriend types to the main character, but here she successfully carries the film in an atypical part of a frigid woman.

Spoiler Alert!

The film’s crowning achievement though is the way it takes a character, in this case Vanessa, who you really don’t like for most of the movie, and then turns her into someone you sympathize with and even feel sorry for by the end. A lot of movies don’t do this, especially the Hollywood ones where the good guys and bad guys must work within a rigid formula, so it’s refreshing seeing a film do something differently and it really works. I found myself thinking about this one long after it was over and feeling emotionally conflicted by it and it’s all because of Hughes’ ability to create a three dimensional person that doesn’t fit into any stereotype even though you initially think she can be. A highly recommended film for those who understand how difficult it can be to deal and communicate effectively with children and how one’s best efforts can sometimes backfire badly.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1983

Runtime: 1 Hour 49 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Carl Schultz

Studio: Hoyts Distribution

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (1971)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Challenging a crime boss.

Kid Sally (Jerry Orbach), who works within a crime family where he’s in charge of a small group of crooks, becomes increasingly frustrated at what he feels is a lack of respect that he gets from mobster boss Baccala (Lionel Stander). When Kid is put in charge of supervising a bicycle race that does not go over well he gets demoted, which convinces him to take down Baccala and become the mob boss himself, but the men under him prove inept at every turn. Each time they try to kill-off Baccala the only ones who die are Kid Sally’s guys.

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Jimmy Breslin and inspired by real-life mobster Joe Gallo who was also the inspiration for Crazy Joe that starred Peter Boyle. However, the Boyle film approached the material in a serious way and tried to keep things more closely tied-in with the actual events while this thing veers-off from what really happened and instead simply uses the situation as a springboard for a lot of zany, comical antics.

One of the main problems is the casting of Orbach who looks nothing like the real Gallo, Boyle was not a perfect match for him either, but he was at least in the same ballpark while Orbach appears too old and without any signs of the mental health issues that had afflicted Gallo who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his youth. There are also too many characters to keep track of and Orbach half the time is barely even seen becoming more like a supporting player in his own movie.

The film does have a few amusing moments including the gang’s attempts to bring in a lion, which they use to blackmail the client’s of their opposition. Van Fleet is also quite funny as Kid’s mother who looks and walks like she’s ready to die from old age, but speaks as if she’s a young tough guy. The location shooting isn’t bad either and seeing the entire group of men crammed into Joe’s mother’s apartment as they partake in their weekly spaghetti dinner brings the Italian ambience to a nice head, but director James Goldstone approaches the material in a haphazard fashion and it’s edited in a way that makes it seem more like a collection of vignettes than a story.

The only interesting element is seeing Robert De Niro, complete with long hair, as this young con who comes to New York straight from Italy. He speaks with an authentic accent, which he acquired by going to Italy for a week and recording the people around him and then playing back their voices while he rehearsed. He even prepared for his role as a thief by stealing 2 shirts from a Macy’s department store requiring producer Irwin Winkler to intervene in order to keep him out of jail. Leigh Taylor-Young is excellent as his love interest and her performance as the Kid’s younger more idealistic sister has an organic quality and a far cry from the psycho role that she played in The Big Bounce just 2 years earlier. The romance between her and De Niro and their attempts to forge a relationship while living in a cramped, rundown apartment is kind of touching and had the film focused on these two it would’ve worked better.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 22, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Rated: PG

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Return to Oz (1985)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nobody believes Dorothy Gale.

Dorothy Gale (Fairuza Balk) has returned to Kansas and the home of Auntie Em (Piper Laurie) and Uncle Henry (Matt Clark), but she continues to talk about her adventures in the Land of Oz and can’t get any sleep. Both her aunt and uncle think she’s become delusional and decide to send her to a doctor (Nicol Williamson) who practices electro shock therapy. It’s there that she’s left under the care of Nurse Wilson (Jean Marsh) while also hooked-up to one of their machines only to be saved when a lightning storm knocks the power out. Dorothy then escapes out of the hospital and runs into a river where she climbs aboard a floating raft and makes friends with a talking chicken. She then gets whisked back to Oz, but this time finds everything in ruins including the citizens of the Emerald City who’ve been turned to stone.

The plot is loosely based on two of L. Frank Baum’s other novels: ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’ and ‘Ozma of Oz’. The rights to the story had been purchased way back in 1954 by Walt Disney with plans to turn it into a film that would’ve starred Annette Funicello. It was to be a live action movie called Rainbow Road to Oz, but while filming had started and even preview segments aired on TV it was never completed as producers ultimately feared it would be compared unfavorably to the highly popular Wizard of Oz, so the production got scrapped. Then in 1980 film editor Walter Murch convinced Disney executives to give the idea another shot and since they were ready to lose the story rights anyways decided to green light the project with Murch acting as the director. Things though did not go smoothly as Murch had no directing experience and fell behind in the shooting schedule, which got him fired 5-weeks in only to be reinstated when his good friend George Lucas (the two had worked together on THX-1138) convinced Disney to give him another chance by promising that he personally would step-in to direct if Murch was unable to complete.

As a whole, at least in the beginning, I really liked the gothic look of the set design and while some critics complained about the dark tone I actually felt this made it more appealing. Despite being a children’s book the story does have, when you think about it, some very creepy aspects to it, so approaching it in a darker way made sense and the imagery especially during the first half is pretty cool. I particularly liked when Auntie Em takes Dorothy to the doctors via a horse carriage, in which you see a longshot of the carriage traveling across the flat brown prairie, which really brought the desolate quality of Kansas to life, (far better than the original film did, which was shot on an indoor soundstage) with the only irony being that was filmed in Salisbury Plain in the U.K., but the lay out of the land of the Sunflower State, of which I’ve been to many times, still gets replicated authentically.

Initially I liked the way the Land of Oz gets captured as well including the Wheelers, who come off like a punk street gang who have wheels in place of hands and feet. Unfortunately so much has changed here from the original that this ultimately doesn’t seem like a sequel, but a completely different movie instead. There’s no yellow brick road (only shown briefly in a decrepit state, no wicked witch or flying monkeys either.) There is the tin man, lion, and scarecrow, but their look has changed significantly including having the scarecrow appear more like a wide-eyed ventriloquist dummy and not the friendly, amusing character that we’re used to.

The story as it gets played-out is not as interesting. There’s no sense of plot progression, but instead just a constant flow of dangers that Dorothy and her newfound friends get into that are too loosely connected and become more redundant than tense. Dorothy never gets overly upset about anything, which impedes the viewer from becoming emotionally wrapped-up into her peril. After all if she’s taking the whole thing in stride, no matter how dangerous things may initially seem, then why should we. Jean Marsh creates a colorful villain, I enjoyed her closet full of different heads and how she can take one off and put on another one, but she ultimately gets too easily taken down.

The film received only a lukewarm reception and despite working off of a $28 million budget managed to recoup only $11 million. Many felt that director Murch, while showing great eye for visual detail, failed to match it with a riveting story and despite some good elements it’s a misfire.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 21, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Walter Murch

Studio: Buena Vista Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, 

The Moonshine War (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Battle over illegal distillery.

John (Alan Alda), who goes by the nickname of Son, and Frank (Patrick McGoohan) were buddies during the war, but now Son has started up a profitable moonshine business while Frank has become a government agent in charge of arresting those that run illegal distilleries. Frank though is also corrupt and willing to look the other way as long as Son gives him a take of the profits, which Son refuses to do. This forces Frank to bring in Emmett (Richard Widmark) and Dual (Lee Hazlewood) who have violent ways of getting what they want, but when Son still refuses it turns into a shootout with the rest of the town sitting on the sidelines and viewing it as spectators.

The film is based on the novel of the same name written by Elmore Leonard who also penned the script, but Richard Quine’s poor direction impedes the story from achieving its full potential. There’s only a couple of interesting bits one of which takes place inside a café where Dual forces a young couple, played by Claude Johnson and a young Teri Garr who sports a brunette wig, to strip and run around naked, but outside of this there’s not much that’s unique. The editing is choppy as the action jumps from the middle of one scene to another with no set-up in-between. The atmosphere, which is supposed to be the 1920’s does not seem authentic, and the homes, which appear more like shacks, look like they were built in an unimaginative way on a studio backlot. The setting is Kentucky but filmed in Stockton, California where the dry, sandy landscape doesn’t look anything like the Bluegrass state.

I’ll give some high marks to the casting, McGoohan is fun as the agent especially as he tries to speak in an odd sounding American accent, but when Widmark comes along he completely upstages him, which is a big problem. There’s so many offbeat characters within the bad guy clan that putting them all together ends up hurting their potential since Widmark steals it away from all of them. I did like Hazelwood, who’s better known as Nancy Sinatra’s singing partner, in a rare acting bit where he’s genuinely creepy, but not used enough to make the lasting impression that it should’ve. The same goes for Suzanne Zenor, making her film debut, who’s quite delightful as the ditzy blonde, (she played the original Chrissy Snow in the first pilot for ‘Three’s a Company’), but needed to be in more scenes to make her presence truly worth it. Alan Alda is also problematic as his character isn’t seen enough to justify having the viewer root for him and things would’ve worked better had it simply been McGoohan versus Widmark.

The ending is amusing seeing the whole town sitting on the riverbank observing the shootout as if it were some sort of sporting event and the explosive finale, which comes as a bit of surprise, isn’t bad either, but the heavy-handed direction really sinks it. In better hands it might’ve worked better, but ultimately comes-off as a head-scratching misfire that is not one of the author’s best work.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: July 5, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 40 Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Richard Quine

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive)

White Dog (1982)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Dog attacks black people.

Late one night while driving home aspiring actress Julie (Kristy McNichol) hits a stray dog, which she takes immediately to an emergency vet. They find that his injuries were minimal and she’s allowed to take him home until his owner can be found. She soon starts to bond with the White Shepherd dog, who at one point saves her from a would-be rapist. She also becomes aware that he attacks black people when he goes after one of her African American friends unprovoked. She takes him to an elderly dog trainer named Carruthers (Burl Ives) who advised that the dog should be put to sleep, but another trainer named Keyes (Paul Winfield), who is black, wants to rehabilitate the animal, but finds this undertaking far more challenging than he initially expected.

The story is based on a real-life incident of novelist Romain Gary and his actress wife Jean Seberg, who during the early 60’s took in a stray dog that had previously been an Alabama Police dog, who they later learned, was trained to attack black people. Gary wrote about this experience in a short story that was published in Life Magazine in 1970 and this was eventually turned into a novel. The novel though incorporated many things that had not occurred in real-life, nor in the movie, including having the dog trainer being an angry black Muslim who gets the dog to start attacking white people including Gary himself.

The story rights were purchased by Paramount in 1975 with Roman Polanski set to direct, but when he was forced to flee the country due to statutory rape chargers the projects was put on hold. Then after the success of Jaws producers decided to turn it into a ‘jaws with paws’ storyline with the racism angle taken out, but when director Samuel Fuller was signed on he returned the plot to its original theme, which caused controversy when the NAACP, without ever having seen the film, accused it of being ‘racist’, which frightened Paramount executives enough that they gave the movie a very limited engagement with no promotion, which led to it recouping only $46, 509 out of its original $7 million budget. Despite eventually getting released on VHS and shown sporadically on cable outlets such as Lifetime, it languished in obscurity until finally getting a DVD/Blu-ray issue in 2008 where it’s now seen in a totally different light.

For me the biggest problem is the hackneyed drama starting with the dopey way the dog gets hit by a car and yet miraculously healed enough to go home that very same night and never showing any lingering injuries. The potential rape scene is too manufactured as well as it has the rapist magically appearing in the apartment without showing how he broke-in and later having one of the cops state that he had just arrested the same guy earlier that year for another rape attempt, so if that’s the case then why wasn’t he still in jail? It also has the dog sleeping as the bad guy sneaks in, but I’ve found dogs have a keen sense of awareness and would’ve heard the guy trying to bust in and growling or barking long before he actually made it into the apartment. Having Kristy go on a late night jog with the dog and then being chased by a masked assailant, which the dog would scare away, would’ve been a better way to have done it.

I also didn’t like the part where Kristy meets the dog’s owner and he openly admits to training him to attack black people, which to me didn’t seem believable. I liked the idea of having the owner being this seemingly kindly old man, played by Parley Baer best known for voicing the Keebler Elf, that you’d never expect as being someone who’d train an animal to do such a thing. However, freely admitting this to a stranger is like a murderer admitting to their crime. Most won’t fess up because they know it would get them into a lot of trouble if they did. Movies should also not be obligated to explain everything and like in real-life should leave a few things open-ended. When Kristy accuses him of this he could reveal a funny look on his face, giving the viewer insight that he most likely was guilty, but then have him verbally deny it like most people would.

While I could’ve done without the slow motion and booming music I did find the dog’s retraining sessions with Keys to be the film’s best moments and Winfield’s strong presence is excellent. However, trying to use a dog as a metaphor to racism doesn’t really work, nor hold-up to logic. Winfield explains that the dog was most likely beaten by a black person hired by a white man to get the dog to become the way he does, but I don’t think this could be achieved as the dog would just hate that one individual and not connect it to the man’s skin color unless he was abused by a whole group of black people. We’re also told that the dog does not hate black people he just fears them, but if that’s the case then why does he go out of his way to attack and kill them. Animals will only go on the attack if they feel threatened, but if the perceived threat keeps their distance then the dog shouldn’t feel the need to be aggressive making the blood splattering attacks that the dog does come off as quite over-the-top.

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My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: November 12, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Samuel Fuller

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD/Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)

Lolly-Madonna XXX (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two rural families feud.

Rod Steiger is the patriarch of the Feather family while Robert Ryan heads the Gutshall household. Both families live next to each other in poor ramshackle shacks in rural Tennessee. Neither side gets along and both will occasionally play tricks on the other in order to try and get the upper-hand. One day the Gutshall boys send a letter to the Feathers signed by a Lolly Madonna even though that woman doesn’t really exist and was created to get the Feathers away from their whiskey still so the Gutshalls could destroy it. However, two of the Feather boys, Thrush and Hawk (Scott Wilson, Ed Lauter) spot Ronnie (Season Hubley) sitting at a bus stop in town and think that she’s the mysterious Lolly, so they kidnap her and bring her back to their farm where they hold her hostage. The Gutshalls see them bring in this new girl, but have no idea who she is, so the Gutshall’s daughter Sister E (Joan Goodfellow) sneaks over to the Feather residence to spy on them, but gets accosted and raped by Thrush and Hawk in the process. Now the Gutshalls feel the Feathers need to pay a price and both factions go to war, which causes several casualties.

The screenplay was written by Sue Grafton, better known for her later mystery novels, and based on her book ‘The Lolly-Madonna War’, which was published in the United Kingdom, but never in the U.S. Supposedly the story is a metaphor for the Vietnam War and the horrible destruction of violence, but trying to make a profound statement through the follies of a bunch of stereotyped hillbillies doesn’t work. For one thing they live in homes that look like they were abandoned 30 years ago and drive in rusted pick-ups that seem taken straight out of the junkyard. I realize poor people can’t all live in nice homes or drive fancy cars, but most can at least maintain them a bit better. Also, neither family owns a telephone, but they do have electricity, a refrigerator and even a TV, so if they can have all of those things then why not a telephone too?

Hubley’s character has no real purpose in the story as the Gutshall’s daughter could’ve been raped for a variety of reasons without any stranger needing to be present. She doesn’t do much when she’s there anyways except sit quietly in the background and observe the feuding. Having her fall madly in love with one of the boys, played by Jeff Bridges, and grieve openly when Hawk, the same man who violently kidnapped her just a day earlier, gets injured seems too rushed and out-of-whack to be believable. I’m well aware of the Stockholm Syndrome where victims can over a great deal of time fall for their captors, but this takes that concept to a ridiculous new level.

Despite being top-billed Steiger is seen very little, especially during the first hour and he’s not allowed to chew-up the scenery like he usually does though watching him make a ham sandwich where he applies a massive amount of ketchup is fun. Bridges pretty much takes over things by the end, but for the most part no one actor, despite the plethora of well-known faces, headlines here and if anything they’re all wasted by being locked into roles that are caricatures and indistinguishable from the others.

The pace is slow with an inordinate amount of talking that over explains things that the viewer could’ve picked up on visually. When the action does occur, like the death of Bridges’ first wife, played by Kathy Watts, it comes off as corny. The animal lovers will not like the scene where Steiger shoots a horse looped together from several different angles and in slow-motion, nor the segment where pigs get tied to a post and scream in panic as a ring of fire gets set around them. The final shootout though is the biggest letdown as the film fades-out before it’s over, so we really never know who survives it and who doesn’t.

Fred Myrow’s haunting score is the only thing that I liked, but everything else falls flat. If you’re looking for a movie with a anti-war/anti-violence message there are hundreds of others to choose from that do it way better.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: February 21, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 45 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Richard C. Sarafian

Studio: MGM

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

The Odd Angry Shot (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Aussie soldiers in Vietnam.

Based on the novel of the same name by William Nagle, who wrote about his actual experiences fighting in Vietnam as part of the Australian army, the story centers on a small group of Aussie men who go to a war that they feel they have no business being in. The story centers on Harry (Graham Kennedy) a bitter middle-aged man who believes his country doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, Bill (John Jarrat) who faces army life for the first time, and Rogers (Bryan Brown) who must deal with crippling injuries when he steps on a landmine as well as Bung (John Hargreaves) who goes through tremendous grief after receiving heartbreaking news in a letter from back home.

To some extent the film features a fresh take as most other movies dealing with the Vietnam War were done from the U.S. perspective and many people may not even realize that Australia had involvement in the conflict and at one point over 7,000 troops stationed there. However, the tone is confusing as it wants to be irreverent like M*A*S*H at certain intervals while at other times more like Apocalypse Now. Some of the amusing moments do work particularly the scene where the U.S. soldiers challenge the Aussies to a contest to see if a deadly spider can kill a scorpion and then having the spider take on the scorpion inside a dish pan that you get to see close-up, which is pretty cool. There’s even some weird imagery involving a dream that Bill has, which is visually arresting. While these scenes are passively entertaining they also make the story come-off as meandering and pointless. The concept may have been to show how boring the war experience can be, but this still needed to be done in a way that kept things gripping, which ultimately the film isn’t.

Having the story center around one main character would’ve prevented this. Initially it starts off like Bill is that person by showing his going-away-party with his friends and family, but then once the setting changes to Vietnam he isn’t seen much and if anything Harry becomes the main star. Observing how Bill’s perspective and personality evolved and become more hardened as the war progressed could’ve been intriguing, but the film fails to deliver. With the exception of Harry there’s not much distinction between the other men in the group, which impedes the viewer from ever becoming emotionally invested in any of them and thus less impactful overall.

The way the violence gets portrayed is interesting as it occurs at random periods without warning. The group can be having a lighthearted time one minute only to be doused with enemy fire the next, which helps recreate the reality of battle where death and destruction can be sudden and unexpected. This put me as a viewer quite on edge, but the characters never reflected that same unease, or by seeing their comrades dying, or injured changed them in any way even though I felt it should’ve.

On the technical end it effectively looks like it was shot on-location even though it really wasn’t. Dramatically though it suffers from not have a centralized character and a vague point-of-view.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: March 1, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Tom Jeffrey

Studio: Roadshow Films

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Fan (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Obsessed fan stalks actress.

Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) has become obsessed with aging film actress Sally Rose (Lauren Bacall) and wants to meet her. He begins by writing her fan letters, but Sally’s secretary Belle (Maureen Stapleton) intercepts them and sends an autographed picture of Sally in return, which gets Michael seething as he wanted a personal response from Sally instead. His letters become more frequent and threatening. Eventually he decides to injure Belle in order to get her out of the way as well as kill anyone else in Sally’s life, so that he can meet with Sally unimpeded and have her all to himself.

One of the quandaries that I had was the casting of Bacall who I felt was too old for the part. I realize that in the Bob Randall novel of the same name, which this film is based, the actress character was also an aging Hollywood star, but as stalking has become more prevalent since this film was released, it’s been shown that stalkers prefer younger, more attractive women with a ‘virginal’ appeal and who they feel they can better control or ‘possess’. With Bacall, and her very feisty personality, you don’t get any of that. She’s also supposedly playing someone who is 49, but looks more like 60 and was actually 56 when it was filmed. While I got more used to her as the film progressed, the script doesn’t take enough advantage of her patented bitchy side, and except for one brief spat with her secretary, her presence is too benign.

The real waste though came from James Garner, who’s given a bland part that doesn’t help propel the story in any way. Originally when the film was first released and I saw his name in the credits I thought he was the stalker, which would’ve been interesting as he’s rarely ever played a bad guy, so it would’ve been intriguing seeing him thrown out of his comfort zone, but unfortunately that ends up not being the case.

Biehn is certainly a good actor although his psycho character in the TV-Movie ‘Deadly Intentions’ is far more interesting than the one he plays here. His weapon of choice, a shaving razor, is not visually intimidating enough and the victims die too easily by slumping over dead after just one quick cut across the chest. The scene where he stabs and kills a guy by swimming underneath him in a public pool is well shot, but implausible as there were so many other people around, including in the pool that it seemed hard to believe that Biehn would’ve been able to escape undetected.

Director Ed Bianchi, who directed a lot of award-winning commercials before doing this, reveals a stylish flair and I enjoyed the way he captures New York particularly the urban cafes and city streets, but the plot itself offers few surprises. Ultimately it would’ve worked better had the identity of the killer been left a mystery until the very end. This way the tension would’ve mounted as the viewer would remain in the dark as much as Sally as to who actually was after her.

Spoiler Alert!

The climactic sequence has Bacall confronting Biehn all by herself while trapped inside an otherwise empty theater. Bacall doesn’t respond to things the same way a conventional female might by screaming, which is great, and she also literally tells the guy off right to his face just as he’s about to stab her, which is great too, but the way she props up his dead body into a theater seat seemed bizarre. Why would she bother doing this? Just leave the dead body lying on the floor and run for help. Seeing the bird’s-eye shot of the killer lying there would’ve looked creepier and instead of a voice over of him reading the first letter he sent her have another letter written by another obsessive fan read and thus creating the double-ending famous in a lot of 80’s slasher flicks where you think the threat had been defeated, but was actually still out there in another form.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Ed Bianchi

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Night Digger (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Handyman holds dark secret.

Maura (Patricia Neal) is the repressed daughter of Edith (Pamela Brown) who both reside in a large gothic mansion. Maura has never married and completely controlled by her overbearing mother, but feels she has no way of getting out of it. One day Billy (Nicholas Clay) rides in on his motorcycle looking for work. He wants to be the resident handyman. Maura declines to hire him, but is overridden by her mother. Soon Billy is living at the mansion with the other two and helping out by fixing things when he can, but Billy is tormented by his tortuous past, which leads to a twisted conclusion.

The film is based on the novel ‘Nest in a Fallen Tree’ by Joy Crowley that was adapted into a screenplay by Roald Dahl who at the time was married to Neal. I’ve never read the novel, but feel it must assuredly have more context particularly with Billy, than what you get here. The plot certainly has some intriguing elements, but it all gets lost with the poorly defined characters. For instance there’s several flashbacks shot in black-and-white showing Billy being tormented by a group of women, but no explanation for who these women were or why they were doing it, or why Billy was got caught up in that situation to begin with. Without more of a backstory the plot and people in it don’t mean as much and the film becomes transparent.

I did though like the directing by Alastair Reid, which is the one thing that holds it together. He makes great use of shadows and darkness and the brief scenes of Billy’s attack on women have a chilly visual effect. I also loved the setting shot at Oakley Court, which is a large stately mansion built in 1859 and now used as a hotel. The scene where Maura goes searching for Billy in his room and opens up what you think is a closet door, but instead is just a gateway that leads to three other rooms shows just how immense the place was, which though does prove to be a bit problematic if you think about it. Why would these two lonely women live in such a large place and if they aren’t rich, which Edith states in the scene where Maura serves them steak dinner, which  she states they ‘can’t afford’ then where did they find the money to own such a large place and maintain it?

The acting by Brown and Clay is good and some interesting bits by Graham Crowden in a supporting role, but Neal seems miscast. I realize she got the part because she was married to the screenwriter, but she looks almost as old as Brown, who plays her adoptive mother, but in reality there was only a 9 year age difference. Her character, like with Billy’s, is not fleshed-out enough making her actions more confusing than revealing like when she despises Billy’s presence at one point only to suddenly throw herself at him the next.

The ending is disappointing. I sat through this wondering what the twist was going to be, but there really isn’t any and it just leaves more questions than answers. Apparently Bernard Herrmann, who was hired to do the music, disliked the ending immensely and this was the first thing out of his mouth when he sat in to screen the film. He even threatened not do the soundtrack unless it was changed, but after arguing with Dahl he eventually caved, but personally I wished he had gotten his way.

Alternate Title: The Road Builder

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 25, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alistair Reid

Studio: MGM-EMI

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive), Amazon Video, YouTube

The Conformist (1970)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Trying to fit-in.

Marcello (Jean Louis Trintignant) is living in Italy during WWII and a member of the fascist secret police. He longs to be a part of acceptable society and partaking in the conventions of what he believes is a normal life including settling down and getting married even if it’s to a woman Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli) that he doesn’t really love. He gets ordered to assassinate Quadri (Enzo Tarascio) who was one of his professors back in college, but who has now been deemed an anti-fascist by the government.  Marcello uses the guise of his honeymoon as an excuse to travel with Giulia to Paris in order to carry out his mission. However, once there he begins to have feelings for the professor’s wife Anna (Dominique Sanda) and becomes unable to carry out the assignment despite being aware that Anna is only using him to get to Giulia, which is who she truly desires.

This film became a benchmark in Bernardo Bertullici’s career and was his first box office success that allowed him the ability to go on and direct even bigger  classics such as The Last Tango in Paris and 1900.  While the visuals are impressively stylistic I do agree with many critics that too much emphasis is placed on the sets, that gives it an almost over-the-top kitschy feel, while drowning out the story, which is handled in a more subtle way, in the process. The plot is still captivating, but a good movie should have a nice balance and as critic Gene Siskel stated in his review it’s more of a ‘show than a story’ and reviewer Keven Thomas labeled it a ‘bravura style Fellini’, which I consider to be a very accurate description.

The story is based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Alberto Moravia, but apparently Bertolucci had never read it when he pitched the idea to Paramount and managed to wow the studio execs into loving the idea simply by relying on the the description of the story giving to him by his then-girlfriend who had read it. When he finally did read it he did so while writing it into a screenplay at the same time.

There are many differences though between the source novel and the film with the movie leaving out a lot of Marcello’s childhood backstory that I felt was needed. The book examines Marcello’s penchant for killing lizards and even the neighbor’s cat as well as his witnessing his father’s abusing of his mother and the vandalization of a family photograph, which the film doesn’t touch on. The book also gets into more detail about why Marcello is tormented by his classmates where in the film we see Marcello being harassed, but it’s never made clear why.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending gets changed too. In the book Marcello has an interesting philosophical debate with Lino, a chauffer who sexually abused him as a child, but this conversation is left out of the movie. Marcello also, along with his wife and child, gets gunned down while driving in their car, but surprisingly the movie doesn’t have this part either. You would think that they would since action makes for a good visual, and I’m not sure for the reason why it was left out/revised except that Bertolucci may have feared it would be too similar to the finale in Bonnie and Clyde and didn’t want to seem like he was replicating that one.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Overall despite these deviations I still found it impactful particularly the ambush scene on a lonely road, which was the one thing that I remembered about the movie after having not seen in for several decades. The strong performances help too especially Trintignant’s brooding portrayal though being French born he spoke his lines phonetically without knowing what they meant and then later had them dubbed by Sergio Graziani in post production. The two lead actresses are splendid too and although the parts were originally offered to the more famous Brigitte Bardot and Anouk Aimee I felt it came off better with the then unknowns particularly Sandrelli who’s energetic and almost child-like at the beginning only to behave like jaded, middle-aged woman by the conclusion.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: July 1, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 53 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray