Category Archives: Movies with a rural setting

The Farmer (1977)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Country man seeks vengeance.

Kyle (Gary Conway) returns from fighting in WWII a decorated hero, but finds when he gets back home that trying to run a profitable farm to be tough going and risks having it foreclosed on by the bank. One night while swerving to avoid an animal on the road professional gambler Johnny (Michael Dante) gets injured in a car accident near were Kyle lives. Kyle and his friend Gumshoe (Ken Renard) nurse Johnny back to health and for repayment Johnny gives Kyle $1,500, which is enough to help his farmstead survive for a little while longer. Johnny though soon gets into trouble with racketeer Passini (George Memmoli) who permanently blinds him by dumping acid on his face. Johnny wants revenge and hires Kyle, who’s farm continues to struggle, to do it by having him use his superior shooting skills to kill-off Passini and his men while using Johnny’s inside knowledge to track them down. At first Kyle resists, even after Johnny offers him $50,000, but when one of Passini’s men (Timothy Scott) burns down Kyle’s barn, kills Gumshoe, and rapes his new girlfriend (Angel Tompkins) he then decides to go on the warpath.

This has become, especially in the past decade, known as a ‘lost film’. It had never been shown on broadcast TV nor cable and had never received a DVD release, or Blu-ray, or even VHS. It became impossible to find even a bootleg copy and many had become convinced this was the obscure of the obscure. Code Red promised 10 years ago, much to the excitement of rare film collectors, to release it on DVD, but after some promotion the deal fell through, which frustrated many and gave this film even more of a cult status. Some had come to believe that maybe the movie was simply a ‘myth’ and really didn’t exist at all. Just when everything looked bleak Scorpion Rising gave it a Blu-ray release in February of this year and the print is excellent and the film itself isn’t bad either.

It’s noted for its graphic violence, which may have been the chief reason it never got shown on TV or cable. Some of it is quite cruel, particularly the acid scene and the rape is quite intense too. This tough does effectively get the viewer emotionally riled-up making them want to see Kyle get revenge and relishing the third act when he does. The revenge scenes are just as bloody, but I was disappointed that, as graphic as the movie is, the segment where Kyle shoves one of Passini’s men out a high-story window is not shown. The camera cuts away when Kyle pushes him instead of seeing the body drop down which might’ve been hard to film since a parade was going on below, but an effort should’ve been made.

Conway’s acting is only adequate though he does at least convey a stoic quality. Angel Tompkins does better and while some of her other B-movie roles weren’t so great this one is clearly her best and proves she could act versus just looking pretty. Memmoli is memorable as the slimy villain and he should’ve been in it more, but he got injured on the set while riding in a stunt car and was cooped-up in a hospital during most of the production, which also ultimately lead to his career downfall and death. The former comic who graduated into character actor roles had always struggled with weight, but had gotten himself down to 190 pounds when he was in this movie, but when the accident occurred and he was laid-up his weight ballooned out to as high as 490 and causing him to have to turn down subsequent film parts due to his physical limitations.

The review in Maltin’s book claims that there’s a lot of ‘anachronistic errors’ in the movie and having read the review beforehand I kept my eagle-eye out looking for them, but I really didn’t see any. Again I never lived in the 40’s and technically Maltin, who was born in 1950, didn’t either, but to me I felt it came-off okay. I liked the way it approaches the era in a gritty way versus a nostalgic one and the frequent use of the hand-held camera, which was ahead-of-its-time. The surprise twist at the end isn’t bad either.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 9, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated R

Director: David Berlatsky

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: Blu-ray

Stigma (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Venereal disease on island.

Calvin (Phillip Michael Thomas) is a doctor recently released from prison who gets a job assisting Dr. Thor (David E. Durston) at his island clinic. When Calvin gets there he’s given a cold greeting by the islanders who do not like a man of color, nor does the town’s racist sheriff (Peter Clune). When he arrives at the clinic he finds that the doctor has already passed-away as well as a tape he left behind warning of an epidemic on the island, but not saying specifically what it is. While staying at the clinic he’s met late one night by Jeremy (William Magerman) an old man residing at the nearby lighthouse. He complains about being in a great deal of pain and upon further testing is found to have syphilis. Calvin tries to go on a crusade to warn the others while also searching for who else may have it, which ultimately leads him to the sheriff’s rebellious daughter D.D. (Josie Johnson).

It’s always interesting seeing how low budget films from a bygone era before the advent of computerized special effects could succeed or fail on the merit of story alone. This one, which was done by David E. Durston who had previously directed the cult-hit I Drink Your Blood just a year earlier, manages to for the most part, blemishes and all, to hold it together. The difficulties though of filming on a shoestring is still widely apparent especially at the beginning where there’s a lot of shaking camera movement and jump cuts. Where Calvin goes to hitch a ride is particularly amusing. Since they didn’t have money to get a permit, or hold-up traffic on a legitimate highway, the scene had to be done on an isolated dirt road that looked like it hadn’t been traveled on in 10 years and normally Calvin would’ve had to have stood there that long with his thumb out before he ever saw a car and yet here this non-descript road gets quite busy by using the film’s crew members driving by with their own vehicles in order to give it a well-trafficked look.

This is also one of those films were the genre is unclear. Some have listed it as a horror film while others label it a drama, or even a comedy. My guess is that it was intended as a drama with some side comedy thrown-in as ill-advised ‘comic relief’. The story though never gets tense enough to need a lighthearted moment and the funny bits are eye-rolling making the production seem even more amateurish than it already is. There’s also a surprisingly graphic moment where pictures of actual syphilis patients are shown including close-ups of their sores and deformed noses, which some could find genuinely stomach-churning.

Thomas is best known for his co-starring role in the 80’s cop drama ‘Miami Vice’, but I found him far more engaging here. Magerman is memorable playing a mute with no teeth, who never says a word, but does have an amusing giggle. Johnson is certainly beautiful, which makes up for her lack of acting, but Clune as the villainous sheriff is all-wrong. He may have looked the part of an aging bigot, but he never gives the role the necessary energy or panache. Lawrence Tierny was original choice for the part, but due this drinking problems was eventually passed over, which was ashame.

In recent years this film has gained notoriety due to it being directed by David E. Durston (1921-2010) and some movie podcasts connecting him to the mysterious deaths of both Diane Linkletter (Art Linkletter’s daughter) and actress Carol Wayne. Durston was with Diane the night she jumped to her death from her apartment window in 1969, which authorities deemed a suicide though some wondered if Durston may have pushed her out. Durston was also dating Carol Wayne in 1985 when the two had an argument while vacationing in Mexico and she left their hotel room only to be found drowned in a lake later on. Further research though has concluded that the man in question in both of these events was Edward Dale Durston, a Los Angeles car salesman born in 1942, and no connection with the film director.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: August 18, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Rated R

Director: David E. Durston

Studio: Cinerama Releasing

Available: DVD-R (Code Red)

The Track (1975)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Hunters chase down woman.

Helen (Mimsy Farmer) is an American who has traveled to rural France in order to teach at a local university. At the train station she meets Philippe (Jean-Luc Bideau) who agrees to take her to the isolated cottage where she is to stay. Along the way they come into contact with Philippe’s boisterous friends who drive them off the road. The men are going out for a wild pig hunt and a few of them particularly Paul (Philippe Leotard) shows a sexual interest in her, but Philippe assures her that they’re ‘harmless’. While Helen moves in to her new place the men go off on their hunt, but when she walks outside to check-out a nearby barn she again comes into contact with Paul along with his brother Albert (Jean-Pierre Marielle) and Chamond (Michel Robin). Paul uses the opportunity to rape her while Albert holds her down and Chamond acts as the lookout. As they are about to leave Helen shoots and critically injures Paul with Chamond’s gun, which he had inadvertently set down, before she goes on the run deep inside the forest. The rest of the group tries tracking her down in an attempt to negotiate some sort of deal, so she won’t go to the authorities, or silence her permanently if she still insists that she will.

Some have labeled this the French version of Straw Dogs, but I consider it much more like Deliverance. In that film you had middle-aged suburbanite males wanting to prove their ‘macho manhood’ by roughing it in the wilderness for a weekend only to find that they weren’t quite as prepared for the harsh elements as they thought. This film works in kind of the same way. The men go hunting to get in touch with their rugged side, but when forced to face tough issues, like helping a woman in distress, they succumb to group pressure and prove ultimately to be wimpy.

Unlike other films in the rape/revenge genre the main character here is shown the least. Farmer does well during the rape segment and screams and fights in a way that elicits genuine horror, but otherwise her facial expressions and mannerisms are quite one-dimensional though I was impressed with the way she did her own stunt work and forced to navigate her way through some difficult and inhospitable terrain.

The main focus is on the male characters who are fascinating and multi-faceted. The most interesting aspect is how they start-out seeming benign and domesticated only to slowly unravel into a aggressively threatening group. The segment where they kill a pig and the animal struggles after being shot will make some animal activists uncomfortable, but like with Jean Renoirs’ Rules of the Game, which had a hunting segment even more graphic than here, it does effectively illustrate that if people are willing to kill an animal for sport; how thin is the line for them to cross-over to a person?

The lack of a soundtrack is a plus. Many thrillers will have a pounding score and sometimes it works to accentuate the tension, but here the natural sounds particularly Helen’s heavy breathing as she runs through the underbrush is far more effective. There’s also no forewarning of what’s going to happen nor buildup. Everything occurs out of nowhere. Most victims who survive a crime will say the same thing that things were peaceful and normal one minute and then all hell broke loose the next.

Spoiler Alert!

The only two things I might’ve done differently had I directed was not showing the rape. As rape scenes go this one is rather mild, but my feeling was it would’ve been creepier had the viewer been in the dark about what occurred as were initially the other men. They’re told the story that the gun went off accidentally and the woman ran in a panic only for them to slowly learn the dark details later on. Having the viewer come to this realization along with the other men would’ve added an extra layer to the story versus it being spelled out.

While the ending is effectively unsettling I still wanted a denouement showing how the strains of this experience changed them, which would’ve added insight. Overall though it’s a brilliant especially for the way it reveals how some of the men considered themselves more ethical than the others only to end up being no better. Everyone likes to feel that they, or their friends, would do the right thing when put in a stressful situation and ‘be the hero’, but this movie expertly examines how that might not always be the case.

Alternate Title: La Traque

Released: May 14, 1975

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Serge Leroy

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD-R (French with English Subtitles) (dvdlady.com, jfhi.com)

Conrack (1974)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: He teaches underprivileged kids.

In the spring of 1969 Pat Conroy gets a job teaching children in grades 5 through 8 in a one room schoolhouse off the coast of South Carolina on an island known as Yamacraw. He soon finds that the students, all of whom are poor and African American, don’t know even the basics of arithmetic, or geography and can’t read. He becomes compelled to change that by instituting unorthodox teaching methods, which he hopes will ‘jostle’ them from their intellectual slumber and get them into learning and enjoying it. Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair) is the principal who’s not keen to these methods and routinely lectures him. Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn) is the superintendent who also frowns on some of the things Pat is doing and proceeds to have him fired. Pat tries to win his job back and the students and townspeople help him in his fight, but will it be enough?

The film is based on the novel ‘The Water is Wide’, which was written by Pat Conroy, who later went on to even greater success with The Great Santiniwhich was based on his father, and also made into a movie. This story was supposedly based on some of Pat’s true-life experiences while teaching on Daufuskie Island. Some of what’s shown is revealing and even captivating, but I couldn’t help but feel certain other aspects were exaggerated. I realize that these kids didn’t have the best education system and certainly might not be as well read as certain other kids their age, but to not know what 2 + 2 was, or that they lived in the U.S.A. came off as too extreme to me. There’s also no real explanation for why the teacher before him failed to teach even these most basic things to them. Was she/he just lazy, or grossly incompetent?

The film also comes-off a bit too much like a vanity project where Conroy is portrayed as being this ‘amazing’ teacher who’s able to get extraordinary results from kids that no one else could simply by his sheer presence alone. All the students bond with him quickly and there’s no trouble-maker, or discipline issues. One could argue that Mary (Tina Andrews) was difficult because she refused to show-up to class, but truancy and in-class disruptions, as well as those students who test authority, are two entirely different things and the fact that Pat is able to avoid that is something few other teachers can say they’ve been able to do as well.

Voight is certainly energetic and engaging, but the students themselves fail to elicit any distinctive personalities and it’s hard to distinguish any of them from the others. I enjoyed Sinclair a great deal and felt she gave a great performance, but her confrontations with Pat could’ve been played-up more. The side-story dealing with Paul Winfield as an illiterate hermit whom Pat teaches to read is a total waste mainly because his character is underdeveloped and not in it long enough to really care about.

I enjoyed Pat’s visit with Edna (Ruth Attaway), one of the elderly townspeople, but his relationship with the other people in town should’ve been shown intermittently all through the film instead of just saving it until the third act where they all attempt to come to his rescue when he loses his job. They seemed to really like him, which is great, but I wasn’t sure they even knew he existed since there were never any scenes showing him interacting with them up until then.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending had me raising my eyebrow a bit, as Pat, once he’s let go of his job, proceeds to drive around the local town and broadcast his grievances through a speaker attached to the roof of his pick-up, which had me concerned that in typical Hollywood fashion he would be able to win his employment back even though in real-life stunts like that usually don’t work. Fortunately that doesn’t happen making the film, which was already idealized to begin with, not seem quite as fabricated. If you can forgive some of these issues, the production as a whole is well down and the always reliable director Martin Ritt perfectly captures the rural setting and ambiance, which is the best thing about it.

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My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 15, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Martin Ritt

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: Blu-ray (Out-of-Print), DVD-R

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Bizarre occurrences at lodge.

Inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) is summoned to a remote winter lodge known as the Dead Mountaineers due to a climber who fell to his death off a nearby cliff and whose faithful St. Bernard sleeps underneath a portrait of him in the hotel’s lobby. Glebsky was informed from the anonymous call of some unusual activity that was occurring at the place, but once he gets there no one, including the innkeeper Alex (Juri Jarvet), know what he’s talking about. After he meets the strange collection of guests he becomes even more suspicious. Then he’s handed a note stating that Hinkus (Mikk Mikiver), a man supposedly weakened by tuberculosis, is planning to commit murder. When one of the guests, Olaf (Tiit Harm), does turn-up dead, but Hinkus is later found tied-up in his bed, so he couldn’t have done it. A avalanche blocks off all outside roads trapping Glebsky and the guests in the building where more and more weird things begin to occur until the inspector can no longer trust his senses, or even his logic.

Some people ask; what makes a great movie? And the answer is that a good movie needs a unique and distinctive image that impresses the viewer right from the start and which they can take away with them once it’s over. This film has just that image with a bird’s eye view of the hotel that’s so remote, as it’s nestled in the snowy, mountain landscape, and so small when glimpsed from high up, that at first I thought it was a prop, but it’s a real building, which makes it all the more impressive. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an isolated place, it doesn’t even seem to have roads leading into it. This shot alone, of which it goes back to it a few times, brilliantly sets the tone for the rest of the movie where everything is totally unique and like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

The fact that this was all shot in what was then the Soviet Union, in this case what is now Kazakhstan, makes it even more jaw-dropping as productions there didn’t receive the same type of budget as a studio driven Hollywood one and yet the visual design is impeccable. The inside of the place has a pronounced, surreal look with excellent shadowy lighting and the special effects, while sparse, come into strong play during the climactic surprise ending that like with the beginning leaves an equally lasting impression. The music by Sven Grunberg has a distinct futuristic tone that helps accentuate the outer worldly quality while the sun glistening off the bright white snow during the outdoor scenes makes it seem almost like another planet.

The story was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and based on their book of the same name. They’re better known for their novel ‘Roadside Picnic’, which was turned into the acclaimed Stalker directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Both brothers also wrote the screenplay and it pretty much stays faithful to the book though there’s a few missing characters and Glebsky’s motivation for going to the lodge is different. Here it was due a mysterious phone call while in the book it was for vacation. The plot at first gets played-up like it’s just another police/murder investigation complete with interviews with potential suspects and even Agatha Christie-like flashbacks showing what each guest was doing when the murder occurred, which had me getting bored as the movie starts out as something really different, so to have it devolve into the conventional murder mystery was disappointing, but by the second act this all changes and that’s when it gets really interesting.

The acting is solid and I enjoyed Pucitis in the lead, who despite having his voice dubbed, has the perfect chiseled features of a hardened police detective. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one and probably the only one in this potential cult classic that desperately needs more attention and a Blu-ray/dvd release, comes at the beginning during Glebsky’s voice-over narration where he speaks in the present about his time at the hotel and how during a ‘slow shift’ the events that he witnessed there comes back to haunt him. I found it hard to believe that he’d only think about this when there was nothing else to do, or in this case a ‘slow shift’, as I’d think it would be on his mind all the time to the extent that he may never be able to go back to police work again as the events would’ve been too traumatizing.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 27, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 20 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Grigori Kromanov

Studio: Tallinnfilm

Available: dvdlady

Cancel My Reservation (1972)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Celebrity accused of murder.

Dan (Bob Hope) is the exhausted TV-personality of a New York talk show that he co-hosts with his wife Sheila (Eva Marie Saint). The two have spent a lot of time bickering and on his Dr.’s advice decides he needs to retreat to a rural area to catch-up on some rest and relaxation. He travels to Arizona where he briefly meets Mary Little Cloud (Betty Ann Carr) at the Phoenix airport. Later on when he arrives at the ranch he discovers Mary’s dead body in his bedroom. When he goes back to the living room to notify the police and then returns to the bedroom her body is gone. Later the police find her corpse in the back of his car and immediately arrest him on the suspicion of murder. Now out on bond he and Sheila must follow the clues in order to solve the case themselves to prevent him from spending the rest of his life in the slammer.

This marked Hope’s last starring vehicle and may be close to being the worst film he did. Reports were that at the premiere he kept complaining to his wife that he looked too old on the screen and felt he was no longer leading man material. A lot of the fault for this goes to Hope himself had he played a character his same age, like a grandpa who enjoys spending his retirement being an amateur sleuth, then it might’ve worked, but instead he tries to play-it like he’s a middle-aged guy, which is just absurd. This comes to a ridiculous head right at the start when he’s brought into the police station and the sheriff, played by Keenan Wynn, asks him his age and Hope, who looks every bit of the 68 years of age that he was, replies that he’s ’42’. I had to actually rewind the film just to make sure I heard it right and the cops don’t look at him with an incredulous look like anyone else would’ve, which makes this the funniest moment in the film even though it’s unintentional.

Pairing with Saint was another mistake. Originally he was supposed to re-team with Lucille Ball, but at the last minute changed course and decided to go with Saint. Presumably this was again for his own vanity as he thought playing a character with a hot, youthful-looking blonde would make him come-off appearing younger even though it does the exact opposite and just makes him seem even older, like an aging daddy going out with his daughter. The two share no chemistry and Saint lacks the comic ability that Ball could’ve brought. The two don’t even fight. They do a little bit at the start while they’re still in New York, but once they reach Arizona they get along even though having them bicker would’ve at least allowed some comic banter, which is otherwise lacking.

The story, which is based on a Louis L’Amour novel ‘The Broken Gun’, is uninspired and gives away the identity of the killer half-way through. What’s the use of sitting through a mystery if you know well before it’s over who the bad guy is? Paul Bogart’s direction has no visual style with bland sets that would be better suited for a TV-sitcom than the big screen.

Hope’s voice-over narration are the only amusing bits. There’s also a dream segment where Hope imagines himself being hung in front of a large group of onlookers, which amongst the crowd is Johnny Carson, Bing Crosby, and John Wayne, who say brief quips as they watch the noose being fitted around his neck, which is the film’s only diverting sequence. I came away thinking it would’ve been more interesting had Carson, Crosby, and Wayne starred in the film alongside Hope playing a group of actors set to do a film, but then turn detectives when one of the cast gets murdered. It might not have been perfect, but certainly couldn’t have been any worse than this.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: September 21, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 39 Minutes

Rated G

Director: Paul Bogart

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: VHS

Goldenrod (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Injured champ seeks comeback.

Jessie (Tony Lo Bianco) is a successful rodeo rider who’s idolized by his oldest son Ethan (Will Darrow McMillan). His fortunes though take a turn for the worse when he’s seriously injured by a horse who stamps on his hip. Doctors tell him he’ll never be able to ride again, which causes him to become depressed. His wife Shirley (Gloria Carlin) leaves him for another man (Donnelly Rhodes) forcing him to go searching for other employment. After doing odd jobs he finally gets hired by John (Donald Pleasance) a alcoholic who lives alone on a farmstead and promises big things, but delivers little. Jessie’s depression worsens and he even attempts to kill himself, but his son Ethan saves him. Ethan then tells him that he wants to be a rodeo rider, hoping that the money he wins can help get the family back on track, but Jessie worries that Ethan will face the same hardships that he did and tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail.

This Canadian entry, which was filmed on-location in the province of Alberta, and partially shot at the world famous Calgary stampede, works off the same formula as the Canadian classic Goin Down the Road, which focused on two losers with big dreams who get in way over-their-heads. Jessie character is the same way. When he’s winning he’s arrogant and thinks he’s above the common man only to then learn a hard lesson. This type of character arc though isn’t interesting as the viewer shares no emotional connection in the protagonist’s plight and in some ways delights at seeing his misfortune since he was so diluted at the start that it all seems like a good comeuppance to bring him back down-to-earth.

Lo Bianco plays the part surprisingly well being that he was an Italian-American born and raised in Brooklyn, so why the producers felt he’d be a good pick to play a Canadian cowboy is a mystery, but he pulls it off and even manages to speak in a Canadian accent while losing his Italian one that he spoke with in The Honeymoon KillersThe character though is almost cartoonish with a child-like optimism that you’d think by middle-aged would’ve been vanquished. He starts to show some humility towards the end, but more of it should’ve come-out already at the beginning in order to make him appealing and relatable.

The film focuses quite a bit on the wife at the start only to have her disappear and then eventually come back at the very end, but this is too much of a departure and the movie should’ve cut back and forth, at least a little bit, showing how she was getting along with her new hubby while Jessie struggled raising the kids. Also, you’d think if she really loved the kids she’d want to stay in contact with them and not just abandon them, which is how it comes-off. Pleasance, who spent the 70’s dotting-the-globe working on films in three different continents, gets wasted in a role that starts out with potential, but ultimately doesn’t lead to much.

The picturesque scenery is nice, but the benign story doesn’t have anything unique or memorable. The dialogue lacks a conversational quality and used more to help narrate the story and describe what’s going on that in a good film should’ve been shown visually. I was surprised too that it takes place in the 50’s because it wasn’t until halfway through when a poster advertising a rodeo and the date on it is 1953 that I had even became aware of this. Up until then it could’ve easily been the 70’s. The only two things that give it a bit of a period flavor are the older model cars, but since some people like to drive these refurbished vehicles I didn’t consider it a tell-tale sign that it was a bygone decade. There’s also brief shots of the Canadian Red Ensign, which was the Canadian Flag before the Maple Leaf one, which didn’t come into effect until 1965. Otherwise this could’ve easily been a modern day story and probably should’ve been as setting it in the past doesn’t give it any added insight.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 22, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Harvey Hart

Studio: Ambassador Film Distributors

Available: None

Cotter (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 1 out of 10

4-Word Review: Rodeo clown seeks redemption.

Art Cotter (Don Murray) is a Sioux Indian who works as a rodeo clown, but when his alcoholism causes the tragic death of a rodeo rider he leaves his hometown in shame. Years later he returns hoping to make amends. He meets up with his old friend Roy (Rip Torn) and Roy’s wife Leah (Carol Lynley) and begins living with the two while trying to find work, but before he can fully turn things around tragedy strike again. This time it’s in the form of murder when wealthy rancher Wolfe (Larry D. Mann) turns-up dead with a large bag of money that he was carrying missing. Cotter was the last person to see him alive, so suspicions are cast on him almost immediately. Roy offers to let Cotter hide-out from the mob in his pump shed out back, but Roy has ulterior motives as he believes Cotter committed the crime and begins hassling him for the whereabouts of the cash. Even Leah, who had shown a liking for Cotter earlier, begins to use her sensual appeal, at her husband’s request, to get him to talk leaving Cotter with the harsh realization that nobody, even his friends, believe in him.

This was one of the last of a string of films that were released in the early 70’s dealing with modern-day rodeo stars. Many of those were hits at the box office, so it was a surprise why this one, which was meant to be released to the theaters, couldn’t find a studio to distribute it, so ultimately it ended up becoming, on April 4, 1973, the first movie to ever premiere on cable television, which at the time was still very much in its infancy.

On the surface I was surprised, given the success of the other rodeo movies, that it had to settle for direct-to-cable, but after watching it it’s pretty easy to see why. For one thing the script, which was written by actor-turned-writer William D. Gordon, doesn’t have much to do with the rodeo world. It’s just used as a set-up at the beginning, but seems much more like it should be put into the murder mystery genre instead of a modern day western, or character study. The mystery itself isn’t intriguing and gets wrapped-up too quickly making it flimsy entertainment no matter which category you put it into.

Casting Murray in the lead was another problem as he’s a white guy who doesn’t resemble an Indian at all. In fact the viewer has to keep reminding themselves that his character is one as you’ll forget otherwise. They do give him some make-up to make his skin appear redder, but this just makes him seem more like a white guy with a sunburn. There were plenty of genuine American Indian actors out there at the time, like Ned Romero, that could’ve played the part and made the character more authentic, which Murray’s presence doesn’t.

I was also disappointed that despite what Leonard Maltin states in his review, or whoever wrote it for him, the movie does not give one a good feel for the Midwest and it become painfully clear to this former Midwesterner that it wasn’t even filmed there in the first place. The Midwest has farm fields, which aren’t seen anywhere, and the towns always have a strong city center usually with the courthouse sitting on one block and then the rest of the downtown shops surrounding it. The downtown here has no distinction just a bunch of nondescript buildings plopped in a row and built on a Hollywood studio black-lot, which makes the setting as bland as the rest of the film.

Outside of Murray there are some good performances particularly by Torn and Lynley, but the script is unfocused and in need of dynamic direction. If its motive was to show the plight of the American Indian and racism then an actual Indian should’ve been cast while also bringing in a Native American as a consultant, which might’ve helped the script seem less generic.

My Rating: 1 out of 10

Released: April 4, 1973

Runtime: 1 Hour 34 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Paul Stanley

Studio: Gold Key Entertainment

Available: DVD

St. Helens (1981)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Codger refuses to evacuate.

Art Carney plays Harry Truman, an 83-year-old man who refused to evacuate from his lodge at the base of Mount St. Helens even as experts warned that the volcano, which had been inactive for 123 years, was ready to explode. Tim Thomerson is the local sheriff who tries to convince him to change his mind and David Huffman is a volcano scientist who travels to the area to study the potential eruption. Initially he tries to get Harry to leave too, but eventually decides to stay, so he can record the eruption from what he believes will be from a safe distance.

The film is based on the actual event which began on March 20, 1980 when local wildlife was observed behaving erratically, and ends with the climactic eruption, which happened on May 18th. I was alive when it occurred and the film manages to correctly reflect the energy of the period where people where both fearful, but also excited. Not everyone though was happy with the movie, David Johnston’s parents were not pleased by the portrayal of their son, played by Huffman who goes by the fictional name of David Jackson, nor 36 other scientists who knew Johnston in real-life and signed a letter of protest.

Since I didn’t know Johnston myself I’ll reserve judgement, but I was not happy about a dumb secondary storyline dealing with a helicopter pilot, played by Ron O’Neal, flying into a flock of quail, which forces him to drop a log that his helicopter was carrying onto a group of men below and almost killing them. Bill McKinney, better known for playing the mountain man in Deliverance, thinks the pilot was intentionally trying to injure them and has his buddies harass and eventually attack the pilot, but this didn’t seem necessary. The men on the ground should’ve easily seen the birds fly into the copter, as it wasn’t that high up, and when it lands there’s clearly blood and feathers on the windshield, which is spotted immediately by the sheriff therefore making the fight scene, which is what it leads to, completely pointless and just put-in as mindless action.

Carney, who was ironically Harry Truman’s favorite actor in real-life, plays the part in a highly entertaining way and helps give the film humor and human interest. Truman really did drive a pink Cadillac and swore a lot, which he does here, but he also owned 16 cats, but the film changes this to him having a dog even though the 16 cats would’ve been far more fun. I couldn’t help but wonder though with the scene where Harry talks to a group of reporters about the greatness of the US constitution and how USA was the ‘greatest country in the world’, which got the reporters to cheer, but today those same statements might give him the derogatory label of ‘nationalist’ and push-back from the reporters instead of applause.

The film is also notable for having two of its stars, who are adversaries here, meet tragic ends in real-life. For Huffman he was stabbed to death in February, 1985 when he tried to chase down a mugger and for Albert Salmi, who portrays a bar owner who plays down the fears of the volcano, ended up, in 1990, killing his wife of 26 years when she filed for divorce, before then turning the gun on himself. I’ve seen Huffman in other films and came away feeling he was a rather bland actor though here he displays a little more spunk. Salmi’s acting is okay, but I didn’t understand why he’s shown working two jobs as he’s a manager of a bar at one point and then supervisor of a saw mill at another. Since the bar he runs is apparently ‘the only one in town’ and seemed packed with people I didn’t get the need for an extra income.

We know how it’s going to end right from the start, so it’s important that the climactic eruption come-off impressively. They do cheat by showing the same footage of the side of the mountain exploding over and over as well as cropping in animated volcanic ash creeping in, which looks tacky. Off-screen wind fans were clearly used to blow dust over the actors and create a white-out effect, but overall it wasn’t too bad and I liked the final shot of a small tree sprouting up amidst the ash. For those who were living during the event, or just curious about the history of it, this is an adequate recreation.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 18, 1981

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ernest Pintoff

Studio: Parnell Films

Available: DVD

Figures in a Landscape (1970)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Chased by a helicopter.

Ansell (Malcolm McDowell) and MacConnachie (Robert Shaw) are two men on the run in the middle of a bleak, desolate desert. What they are escaping from is never clear, but they’re constantly hounded by a helicopter that seems intent at stopping them. They come upon a small village and steal food and supplies and then continue on their escape, but find trying to get along with each other is just as challenging as avoiding the copter.

I’m a big admirer of Joseph Losey’s films and I also enjoy movies that have an air of mystery and don’t feel the need to have to explain everything, but this attempt at avante garde doesn’t work. The Barry England novel or which this is based and received high critical praise when it came out in 1968 at least made it clear that these two were soldiers who were deserting for whatever reason, but the movie doesn’t even mention this. We’re simply left with a nothing-burger of seeing two guys we have no emotional connection with scurrying around the countryside, which gets old fast and has nothing to keep it compelling though the bird’s eye shots of them on the ground looking like dots as they run at least allows it to live up to its title.

Fans of the film will admit that the story is lacking, but the helicopter sequences and stunt work more than makes up for it, but I found this aspect to be underwhelming. The camerawork of showing the copter bearing down on them while splicing in shots from the pilot’s point-of-view is well handled, but it’s not as exciting as could’ve been because when the pilots have a chance to shoot the men they don’t. McDowell’s character explains that they (the helicopter pilots) are just ‘toying with them’, but the viewer can’t be expected to get wrapped-up in a silly cat-and-mouse contest that has no life or death consequence.

Much of the blame for why this comes-off more like a misguided experiment than an actual movie, can be attributed to Shaw, who was given permission to rewrite the script and promised to have it completed by the time shooting began, but didn’t. Apparently revisions were being made on a daily basis and no one knew where the plot was going, or how to end it, which ultimately makes for a flat and detached viewing experience.

The two leads do quite well with McDowell interesting as the younger of the two, but still more emotionally mature. Shaw is equally fine giving off a maniacal laugh that I’ve never heard him do before. Their bout with diarrhea at a most inopportune time is amusing. While some may find it gross it’s something that could happen to those who haven’t eaten in awhile and feeding off canned food, so in that way the movie tackles a realistic subject other escapees-on-the-run movies shy away from though the shaving aspect was a problem in reverse. I didn’t understand why Shaw would feel it’s so important for them to remain clean shaven when they’re just trying to survive and there’s no explanation for how they were able to remain without beards at the beginning when they were running around with their hands tied behind their backs.

In any case the movie desperately needed a conclusion as way too much is left open-ended. There should’ve been a final twist, like in an episode of the ‘Twilight Zone’ that makes sitting through it worth it. Ultimately it lacks focus with a concept better suited for a novel and never should’ve been made into a movie in the first place.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: July 14, 1970

Runtime: 1 Hour 50 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joseph Losey

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video