Category Archives: Prison Flicks

Vigilante (1982)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Father dispenses street justice.

Eddie (Robert Forster) is a factory worker living in a tough neighborhood of New York who comes home one day to find his wife (Rutanya Alda) beaten and his infant son murdered. Initially he trusts the system will bring the culprits to justice, but then realizes to his horror that the judge (Vincent Beck) is corrupt and with a payout that he receives from the defense attorney (Joe Spinell) he lets the head of the gang (Willie Colon) off with a probation sentence.  Eddie becomes outraged and seeks the help of a neighborhood vigilante group headed by Nick (Fred Williamnson) to set things right.

The film is an obvious rip-off of  Death Wish  that is so uninspired that I’m surprised that the producers of that film didn’t sue the filmmakers of this one for plagarism. Both the good guys and the bad ones are such extreme caricatures that it becomes unintentional camp while the tone has an ‘everything is terrible’ approach that makes it seem like the entire planet has become one big crime-ridden urban hellhole.

The script is full of loopholes like the fact that Alda initially confronts the gang at a gas station and yet when she gets home she finds that the gang is waiting outside in their car, but it’s never explained how they knew where she lived. If they followed her then that needs to be shown and it isn’t. When she calls the police asking them to send over a squad car she neglects to give them her address even though this was long before caller ID and without the address they wouldn’t know where to go.

Although I’ll give him credit for appearing nude while trying to fight off guys who were bigger than him and fully clothed while in the prison’s shower I still felt overall Forster’s performance, who gets billed on the film’s promotional poster as Robert FOSTER, is quite poor. Most of this is due to the script, but I still found it disappointing. Usually he displays a feisty, gutsy tough guy that I enjoy, but here he comes off as transparent and when he finds out his kid has been murdered he shows barely no emotion at all. Williamson conveys a far better edge and he should’ve been made the star while Forster’s character could’ve been scrapped completely.

Carol Lynley, as the District Attorney, is barely seen at all in a thankless bit that lasts less than five minutes, which is a shame as this was the last film that she was in where she still retained her youthful appeal as her film appearances after this she displayed a much more middle-aged appearance. Spinell, who had starred in Maniac just a year before that was done by the same director, is also wasted in a part that is much too brief. Woody Strode appears here as one of the prisoners, but he was clearly aging by this point and nearing 70 at the time make the part where he beats up two younger guys who are much bigger than him look ludicrous.

Spoiler Alert!

The films ends with a nifty car chase, which is probably the best moment in the film even though there’s loopholes here as well like having Forster crash into a patrol car, but he’s able to back away and keep going, but for some reason the patrol car doesn’t continue to give chase. If it was disabled in the crash then it needs to show this and it doesn’t. Forster also plants a bomb in the corrupt judge’s car, but nothing is shown earlier revealing that Forster had the ability to build one, so how did he figure out how to make it? It’s also highly unlikely that a judge, knowing that he was corrupt and people would mostly likely be after him, would pick-up a strange looking red object that he sees on his car and stupidly press a button on it. The bomb, before it explodes, also features a recording of him handing down the light sentence to the gang leader, but how was this recorded because during the courtroom scene no recording device was shown?

End of Spoiler Alert!

William Lustig, who initially started out as a director of porn films under the pseudonym Billy Bagg, showed great promise with Maniacbut here the effort is sloppy with little imagination given to the already stale premise. Everything, even the grisly violence comes off as mechanical and derivative.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: July 23, 1982

Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes

Rated R

Director: William Lustig

Studio: Artists Releasing

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

Jackson County Jail (1975)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Deputy rapes his prisoner.

Nothing seems to be going right in Dinah’s (Yvette Mimieux) life. She quits her job as an advertising executive only to come home to find that her husband (Howard Hesseman) has been cheating on her. She decides to travel across the country and back to her old digs in New York. Along the way she picks up two hitch-hikers (Robert Carradine, Nancy Lee Noble) who end up robbing her at gunpoint and driving off with her car and money. When she walks to the nearest town she finds that no one is willing to help her since, without any identification, she can’t prove who she is. The sheriff (Severn Darden) throws her in jail temporarily until her identity can be confirmed. While there she gets raped by one of the deputies (Fredric Cook) and then goes on the run with Coley (Tommy Lee Jones)  a small-time crook and drifter.

This is yet another Roger Corman produced cheapie made to capitalize on the exploitative low budget drive-in fervor that was so popular during the early to mid 70’s. This one fares better than most as it manages to retain its gritty tone throughout without ever resorting to campiness. The car chase doesn’t have any of the cartoonish or humorous stunts as most others did during that time period, but instead like in Cannonball! shows more of the potential ugly side to them by having several of the vehicles crash and blow-up in flames and killing those that were inside them, which helps accentuate the realism.

The police aren’t quite as inept either although I did find it curious that the cops in the helicopter once they found where Mimieux and Jones’s hideout was didn’t continue to chase the two via the air as they tried to escape down the road in their pick-up. The part where the cop shoots at Jones who collides on foot into a marching band is absurd too as no policeman with half-a-brain would fire into an open crowd as it’s too dangerous and would almost assure innocent victims getting hit.

Mimieux is adequate and the funky 70’s style compact car she drives in with its roundish flying saucer body and oversized steering wheel is a laughable relic. However, for someone whose lived in L.A. she didn’t seem savvy especially when she decides to pick-up two hitch-hikers, which is just asking for trouble, or naively unaware that the obviously drunken, leering cafe owner (Britt Leach) is only being ‘helpful’ so he can have a chance to pounce on her.

Jones is excellent in support, but I found it odd that despite being considered a ‘good guy’ he makes no effort to stop her rape, which he witnesses by being in the adjoining cell, but then when she kills the rapist by beating him over the head with a stool he reaches through the bars and stops her.

The film’s most interesting performance is Fredric Cook’s who plays the rapist. His film career never really took off and he spent most of his life working as an acting teacher, but here in his film debut he really shines. I liked the way his character starts out as a redneck dope who seems put in for comic relief and then quietly becomes menacing as he serves Mimieux her food, explodes into a sudden massive rage, and then after the act is committed becomes guilt ridden and even ashamed, which creates a very interesting portal into the mindset of most male attackers.

The second half unfortunately slows up creating boring segments when the pace and tension should instead be revved up. The wide-open ending offers no conclusion to Mimieux’s ultimate fate and the film’s message is vague and transparent.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: April 2, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Miller

Studio: New World Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: His life in prison.

Smitty (Wendell Burton) is a young first-time offender who’s sent away to the Canadian penitentiary for six months. He gets assigned to a cell with three other men: Rocky (Zooey Hall), Mona (Danny Freedman), and Queenie (Michael Greer). Queenie is an openly gay drag queen while Mona is a soft-spoken young man who likes to write poetry. Rocky is the tough guy who offers Smitty ‘protection’ if Smitty agrees to become his subordinate and do anything he asks including sexual favors. To avoid the harassment that he sees others getting that don’t have the same ‘protection’ he agrees, but eventually he grows tired of Rocky’s dominance and decides to challenge it.

The film is based on  a play written by John Herbert who also wrote the screenplay. It is based on actual experiences that he received when he was arrested for dressing in drag in 1947 and taken to a reformatory at the age of 20. The play, which was written in 1967 initially had a hard time getting produced due to the subject matter, but was eventually put on the stage by Sal Mineo who directed and also played Rocky while Don Johnson played Smitty and Greer, like in the film, played Queenie.

The film version though makes many changes to the story some of which I’m not sure I liked. The one thing though that I thought was excellent is that it was shot inside an actual prison, which helps add authenticity. As opposed to most movies which shoots things from outside the cell looking in this one captures everything from inside the cell, which makes the viewer feel like they’re locked in the jail with the rest of the men and gives one a true feeling of the claustrophobic prison experience.

The shock element may not be as strong as it once was. The scene where Rocky rapes Smitty in the shower as the camera fixates on the running faucets and we hear only Smitty’s cries may be a bit too stylized and even kind of hokey by today’s standards. The segment though where Mona is grabbed from behind by a brute and taken into a dingy cell where he’s gang raped while the guards look away was to me far more potent. A later scene dealing with a prisoner being taken to a back room and beaten by the guards could’ve been stronger had it been extended.

For me personally the most shocking element is seeing Smitty’s transformation from naive man who we the viewer can mostly relate too, to someone who becomes almost as bad as Rocky. However, I found it annoying that it’s never made clear what he did that got him into prison in the first place and his character arch would’ve been stronger had the film started with him in the outside world committing the crime and subsequently getting arrested.

Burton’s acting abilities don’t seem quite on par with the demands of the role. His blank-eyed stare and monotone delivery make him seem like a one-dimensional actor and he was most likely given the role simply because of his babyface. Greer though in many ways steals it as the flamboyant drag queen and the outrageous performance that he puts on during the Christmas show at the prison is quite memorable.

Spoiler Alert!

The film remains compelling, but is hampered visually by being done almost entirely in one setting. The ending though leaves open too many questions. Does Smitty ever get out? How does he behave once he does and how has his experiences in prison changed him? None of these things get answered, which to me made the film incomplete and despite some good dramatic efforts here and there unsatisfying.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: June 15, 1971

Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Harvey Hart, Jules Schwerin (uncredited)

Studio: MGM

Available: VHS

Harry and Walter Go to New York (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Two vaudevillians rob bank.

Harry and Walter (James Caan, Elliot Gould) are two down-on-their-luck marginally talented comedians living in the 1920’s who go to jail when they’re caught trying to rob their audience members during a tacky onstage ‘psychic’ stunt that goes horribly wrong. While in the slammer they meet up with Adam Worth (Michael Caine) a rich man from society’s upper crust who enjoys robbing banks just for the thrill of it. They come upon the blue print for his next proposed heist and take a picture of it and then after they escape from jail challenge Adam on who will be able to rob the bank first.

This is one of those 70’s movies that I found to be refreshingly original and quite funny, but when it was released it was met with harsh reviews and was a bomb at the box office. After some bad test audience reactions it was heavily cut much to director Mark Rydell’s dismay who felt a lot of the better jokes went missing although producer Tony Bill and star Caan blame Rydell for the film’s failure and insist that much of the humor in the original script was never even filmed or used.

I can’t explain why the film didn’t do well as I personally found as bank heist movies go this one to be quite  unique. So many bank robbing films from that era, and even today, paint the scheme in a one-dimensional way by portraying the robbers, who we are usually supposed to sympathize with, as a modern-day Robin Hood, while the cops and those out to stop them are represented as being the greedy,oppressive establishment, but this film takes things a step further, which is what I found interesting. The competition aspect gives it an extra.,likable edge and really made me want to root for Harry and Walter and their gang of losers who take on the arrogant Caine and his snotty buddies. Instead of the viewer just being intrigued at how they’re able to pull of the robbery as is the case with most heist films we are much more emotionally invested with its outcome.

Caan and Gould are what Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman should’ve been in Ishtar. These guys are definite losers, but still appealing and comical at the same time. Caan has never been known for his comedy and he has referred to this movie as ‘Harry and Walter Go to the Toilet’, which is a shame because he shows nice energy here and is able to keep Gould in check by not allowing him to drone on and steal the spotlight as he can sometimes do when left alone or with a less capable co-star.

If the film fails at all it’s by entering in too many supporting players. The title mentions only Harry and Walter and they should’ve pulled off the heist alone with maybe only Keaton tagging along for balance. As it is though a whole massive group gets in on it to the point that the two leads have little to do. While the group is busily trying to figure out how to open the safe Harry and Walter are on stage trying to extend a stage play  The film still works pretty well despite this issue, but technically the two men should be at the center of the action and in a lot of ways they really aren’t and in fact become almost like supporting players by the end.

The film also goes on too long with the denouncement being far more extended than it should, but it’s still a fun, breezy watch that reflects the gilded age flavor well and uses leftover sets from Hello Dolly to enhance the scenery perfectly.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 55 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Mark Rydell

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video

Switching Channels (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Reporter shields convicted killer.

Christy Colleran (Kathleen Turner) is a dedicated news reporter working at a satellite news network who decides to take a much needed vacation. On her trip she meets the dashing and very rich Blane Bingham (Christopher Reeve). The two hit-it-off and decide to get married, but when she informs her ex-husband John (Burt Reynolds), who just so happens to also be here employer, he does everything he can to prevent the marriage from happening. Part of his scheme is to get her so involved in covering the impending execution of Ike Roscoe (Henry Gibson) that she won’t have time for Blaine, but when the execution goes awry and allows Ike to escape Christy agrees to shield him from the authorities.

The story is based off of the very famous Broadway play ‘The Front Page’ that was first performed in 1928 and has been remade into a cinematic film (not including the TV-movie versions) three different times before this one. The first was in 1931 and the second in 1942 with His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, which was probably the best version, and then in 1974 director Billy Wilder took a stab at the story that starred Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.

Why it was felt that this story needed to be done again is a mystery as this version is by far the weakest and hardly funny at all. The premise itself is solid, but structured in a way that makes it come off as an unfocused mess. It starts out as this sort of romantic love triangle scenario then jarringly shifts into the execution until it seems like two entirely different movies crammed into one. None of the original dialogue from the play was retained making the attempted banter here benign and uninteresting.

Although it’s been a while since I’ve seen the three other versions, which I found to be highly entertaining and funny, but this one is dizzying and confusing instead. As I remember the other versions kept the focus solely on the three leads and had them remain in the same setting with the action basically coming to them. Here it gets diluted with the characters prancing around to too many different places with their presence getting minimized by gargantuan, overly colorful sets that swallow up both the actors and story.

Reeve is excellent in what I consider his best role outside of Superman. Reynolds though looks uncomfortable in an ensemble-type comedy structure and he shares absolutely no chemistry with Turner with behind-the-scene reports saying that the two couldn’t get along at all. It’s almost like they cast the parts based solely on the name recognition of the stars over whether they were truly right for the parts.

Turner had already lost her youthful appeal here that had made her so sexy in Body Heat that had just been done 7 years earlier.  She comes off as more middle-aged and frumpy and not at all the type of woman two guys would fight over. I admire her attempts at expanding her acting range by taking a stab at frantic comedy, but her constant breathless delivery becomes tiresome and redundant.

The entire production gets overblown. Director Ted Kotcheff’s attempts to make the story more cinematic ends up draining it of the amusing subtle nuances that made it so special when it was done onstage. Switching channels is indeed an appropriate title for this because if it were shown on TV I would be pressing the remote to a different station.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Release: March 4, 1988

Runtime: 1hour 45Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ted Kotcheff

Studio: TriStar Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

THX 1138 (1971)

thx-1138

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 9 out of 10

4-Word Review: Sex is not allowed.

THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is member of a futuristic, work camp-like society where everyone has shaved heads, forced to take drugs to control their emotions and avoid having sex, which is forbidden. His days are spent on the production line where he helps build police androids and at night he goes home to an apartment where he rooms with LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). She is unhappy with her situation and stops taking the required drugs while replacing THX’s with placebos. The two begin a sexual affair and are promptly arrested. THX is thrown into a modernistic prison that has no walls or bars and he eventually decides to attempt a daring escape with the help of SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) and a hologram known as SRT 9 (Don Pedro Colley).

This story is an extension to the student film that director George Lucas made while attending the University of California film school. That film was a 15 minute short entitled Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which dealt with a man trying to escape from a futuristic world while being chased and monitored by government run computers. It won first place in the 1968 National Student Film Festival and was good enough to gain the attention of Francis Ford Coppola who offered to produce a feature film dealing with the same basic premise, but having more of a background to the character and his reason for escaping.

Reportedly Lucas considers this to be his favorite project and despite the fact that it did not do well at the box office I consider it to be his best stuff as well. The visuals are imaginative and striking and make you feel like you are entering a whole new world unlike any that had ever been created before. I especially liked the prison scenes where the characters are surrounded by nothing but an unending white as well as THX’s medical examination done exclusively by robotic arms. Having the characters framed towards the side of the screen instead of the center while action occurs just out of view helps accentuate the off-kilter vibe and was year’s ahead-of-its-time.

Even though there is very little dialogue or music the sound becomes an integral part of the film by relying on comments made by the androids who tell the people in a HAL-like tone to ‘stay calm’ as well as the state sanctioned god known as OHM who routinely advises his followers ‘to be happy’. The best part though comes when two techs have a casual a conversation while viewing through monitors the torture of THX.

The film is visually groundbreaking and one of the greatest directorial debuts of any director living or dead, but it still comes with a few caveats. One is the fact that the plot relies too heavily on the stereotypical Orwellian view of the future where everything is worse than it is today and people no longer have any individual rights. Yet technology has proven to make life increasingly easier for people and with more freedoms and options, so why would everything suddenly revert the other way? Maybe they were survivors of a nuclear holocaust and this society was humankind’s way of ‘starting over’, but that’s never made clear and it would’ve been nice to at least get a glimpse of the person, or people who were behind-the-scenes with the ultimate authority as well as some sort of backstory.

There is also the fact that everyone in this society needs to be working, but jobs today are increasingly being lost to automation every year and that trend will continue. Certain nations like Finland are already experimenting with paying their citizens a basic salary because there are more people than jobs available.  Citizens of future societies are predicted to have more free time than ever before, so why doesn’t the world in this film follow suit? If this society can build android cops why can’t they also build robots to do the all the other jobs too, which would then allow the humans to have more of an idyllic existence than a workaholic one?

I also wasn’t too crazy about the 2004 digital restoration, which added new special effects and footage. I last saw this film in 2001 and could tell right away that this version had been tampered with. I realize that Lucas has been known to do this with his Star Wars films, but to me it’s as bad as colorization. Why mess with something that is already good? The added computer effects does not ‘enhance’ anything, but instead desecrates the original vision and treats it like it were a video game than a movie.

My Rating: 9 out of 10

Released: March 11, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 28Minutes

Rated R

Director: George Lucas

Studio:  Warner Brothers

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

There Was a Crooked Man…(1970)

there was a crooked man 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Money in snake pit.

Paris Pittman (Kirk Douglas) is a rugged bandit who at times can be quite charming, but also cunning and ruthless. When he gets sent to an escape-proof Arizona prison he becomes determined to find a way out while using the skills of his fellow prisoners, who he has all promised will get a share of some stolen loot that he has hidden in the desert, to help him do it. Woodward Lopeman (Henry Fonda) is the prison’s new warden. He’s on to Paris’s manipulative ways and becomes equally determined to stop him from escaping while also subtly attempting to reform him.

During the social/sexual revolution of the late ‘60’s many film genres took on society’s new attitudes while also taking full advantage of the new found freedoms by showing things that had previously been taboo. Comedies, dramas, action films and even sci-fi movies were suddenly breaking new ground, but the western for the most part remained entrenched with the old-school values at least until the ‘70’s, but this film is one of the early entries into what became known as the revisionist western where age-old dramatic trappings where suddenly given a whole new spin and the caricatures of good and evil became much murkier.

Here the ‘good guy’ is to some extent the bandit who works outside of the system while seeing all the hypocrisies from those still working within it. The people getting robbed are no longer ‘God-fearing’ innocent town folk, but instead the greedy establishment who enslave blacks and use the façade of religion for their own self-interests.  Woman are no longer virginal maidens waiting to be properly married, but instead sexually oppressed young ladies eager to pursue their horny desires behind their parents back if they can get away with it. Those that still remain loyal to the old ways of doing things such as with Fonda’s character are now seen as being out-of-touch and unreasonably rigid to an inflexible, dated system.

Watching the western genre suddenly ‘grow-up’ as it where and show things that only a few years earlier would’ve been unthinkable is a lot of fun and the script meshes in a good amount of snarky humor, which keeps things consistently lively and comical. Even the music score gets a new slant. Typically music themes in westerns had a booming, orchestral sound, but here it’s much jazzier and modern.

Douglas is engaging and makes a great adversary to Fonda. Fonda, who just a year earlier shocked filmed audiences with his brilliantly creepy portrayal of a psychotic gunman in Once Upon a Time in the West goes back to his old form as the stoic good guy and does it quite well although I was confused why he is seen in the first half walking with a limp and a cane due to being shot only to go without it and walk normally during the second half.

The support cast, all men in their 50’s and 60’s and seen for years in the old fashioned westerns, but now clearly relishing the chance to be bawdy and irreverent are in fine form as well. Burgess Meredith is quite funny as an old codger who has worn the same underwear for 35 years and refuses to take it off even for a bath. Hume Cronyn lends equally good support and I loved the scene where he adds giant tits onto a drawing of an angel. This also marks the film debut of Pamela Hensley who became best known for her work on the TV-shows ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’ and ‘Matt Houston’.

There are clearly other comical westerns out there, but this one, with a script co-written by Robert Benton, manages to still have a good story, some very exciting moments and even a great twist ending. The prison used in the film was built specifically for the production and great effort was put in to make it seem authentic to the period. The detail that was put into it along with the rock quarry where the prisoners work in is impressive and worth catching just for that.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: December 25, 1970

Runtime: 2Hours 6Minutes

Rated R

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

King Rat (1965)

king rat 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: An island prison camp.

British and American POWs are held on an Island prison camp run by the Japanese during WW II. This camp is unlike the others as it does not have any walls, barbed wire fences, or prison guards. The men are allowed to roam freely while trapped on a tiny island with nowhere to go. Corporal King (George Segal) manages to wheel-and-deal his way to the top of the food chain by getting involved with the underground black market, which allows him to live the relative good-life while the other prisoners remain near starvation. He befriends Marlowe (James Fox) who can speak the Malaysian language, which he feels can come in handy as he gets involved with a diamond smuggling operation as well as selling deer meat, which unbeknownst to his customers is actually meat from rats who’ve feed off of the bodies of the other dead prisoners.

To some extent one can find some similarities to this and The Great Escape or Stalag 17 in that the prisoners have managed to create their own underground network without their captors being aware, but that is pretty much where the comparisons end. This film is darker and examines more the psychological deterioration that the men go through while realizing its themselves and each other that is more the enemy than the actual Japanese guards who are shown very little and have no presence at the camp or in the movie.

Segal gives a star making performance as a anti-hero who could easily be quite unlikable, but Segal’s engaging on-screen persona gives the character an added spark making him and his constant conniving more amusing than anything particularly with the way he barters with the Malaysian guards during their discussions on the price of the transfer of diamonds.

The supporting cast is outstanding as well especially Fox as the only sympathetic character and Tom Courtenay as the overzealous Grey and his never-ending crusade to take King and his cronies down. James Donald is also good as the no-nonsense Dr. with a very matter-of-fact bedside manner and a young Richard Dawson who gets the shock of his life when he comes in after the Japanese surrender to free the men of their enslavement only to find that they’re strangely reluctant to leave.

The film works in episodic fashion and while it maintains a gritty level it also has some lulls and few too many shifts in tone. There are though many unique and memorable moments including the ending where the men find themselves free to return home, but respond much differently than you’d expect. There is also a scene where the men kill a dog after it attacks some chickens and then later eat it as if it were a delicacy.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: October 27, 1965

Runtime: 2Hours 14Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Bryan Forbes

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

The Pursuit of Happiness (1971)

 

pursuit of happiness 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Justice isn’t always fair.

Everything seems to be going William Popper’s (Michael Sarrazin) way. He is a young college student with a great looking girlfriend (Barbara Hershey) and from a rich family. One night he takes a trip to the grocery store. It is raining and he accidently hits and kills a woman who walks out onto the street between two parked cars. Since William has several unpaid traffic tickets, is part of the anti-establishment movement and seems to have a generally belligerent manner he gets arrested for her death. His rich father (Arthur Hill) hires a successful lawyer (E.G. Marshall), but William is a major idealist who doesn’t want to compromise on anything and the more he fights for his ideals the deeper it gets him into trouble.

The film, which is based on a novel by Thomas Rogers, certainly makes some great points about our modern day American justice system where everything seems more based on the image that the defendant tries to present than the actual facts. Unfortunately most viewers today are already quite jaded by this and the message comes off as old and redundant.

The biggest problem is with Sarrazin. He has always had a bit of a transparent quality and I’ve defended him in some of his other roles, but here he helps to bring the whole thing down. He conveys no anger or emotion of any kind even though it’s supposedly his passion for the truth that causes him to behave the way he does. His comes off as limp and lifeless making me wonder how such a bland guy could attract a girlfriend at all let alone a really beautiful one. His character is also a bit too stubborn and strangely naïve to the point that the viewer isn’t completely empathetic with his cause as it becomes painfully obvious that he is only hurting himself by refusing to back down at all while most rational people would’ve likely buckled under just enough to get themselves out of the jam.

The script unfortunately is more intent on making a statement than telling a story as we are given no conclusion to the character’s plight. He escapes from jail and takes a flight to Mexico, but then it just ends leaving open a wide array of unanswered questions and making the viewer feel like they’ve seen only half a movie.

Ruth White, in her last film appearance, gives a strong performance as Walter’s Archie Bunker-like grandmother. It’s also great to see Marshall playing a more hard-lined version of the defense attorney role that he was famous for from ‘The Defenders’ TV-show. Robert Klein is engaging as Walter ‘60s radical college friend and David Doyle is good as Walter’s cellmate. Charles Durning, Ralph Waite and Rue McClanahan can be seen in small roles and this also marks William Devane’s film debut.

pursuit of happiness 3

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: February 23, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 33Minutes

Rated GP

Director: Robert Mulligan

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Body Heat (1981)

body heat 1

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Lawyer kills lover’s husband.

Every Monday for the month of August I’ll review an 80’s film that has the word ‘heat’ in its title starting with this modern-day film noir classic. Ned Racine (William Hurt) is a shyster lawyer looking for some action and on one sultry hot Florida night finds it when he spots the beautiful Matty Walker (Kathleen Turner) at an outdoor concert. The two soon fall into having mad passionate sex, but there is one problem. Matty is married to Edmund (Richard Crenna) who is rich, but boring. She plants the seed in Ned’s head to kill him and thus allow the two to live happily ever after with the money they will get from his will. Ned jumps into the scheme with his eyes wide-open only to later realize after it is too late that Matty has other plans that don’t involve him and thus making him a schmuck of the first kind.

I still enjoyed Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice better, but for a modern day film noir this one isn’t bad and rates superior to most of the others. Writer/ director Lawrence Kasdan creates characters that are amoral, but fascinating. The dialogue is snappy and the production stylish without ever getting too overdone or pretentious.  The first hour is a bit slow and it takes too long to get to the killing, but once the second half kicks in it becomes a wild ride of twists and turns that remains as entertaining as ever.

The movie also has numerous references to the heat even more so than most movies that takes place in a hot climate. Overall I enjoyed this as it makes the viewer feel sweaty and muggy even if the weather outside isn’t. The sweat glistening off their naked bodies is effective and not an irritating cliché like in most other movies. The only problem I had was that Matty lives in this giant, luxurious mansion and yet must rely on fans and open windows to cool off when in reality the place would have been wired with indoor air conditioning.

Turner, in her film debut, looks stunning and it is just unfortunate that due to illness and age she no longer looks anything like she did here. Her nude scenes are brief and from far away, but still hot.

Hurt is excellent as usual, but the character was a bit irritating. I realize that the guy is thinking with his penis and not his brain, but it still seemed hard to believe that he wouldn’t once just for a second step back and contemplate whether he was being set-up especially since her ‘tactics’ to convince him to do it weren’t in any way novel or sophisticated. The minute she brings up wanting to change the will like she does here so that she gets all the money instead of Edmund’s ex-wife should have been a red flag to even the dumbest and horniest of males that this woman is in love only with money and a good signal that he is being used and to dump her.

Ted Danson looking almost unrecognizable in horn-rimmed glasses is a stand-out in support and almost ends up stealing the film as Ned’s lawyer buddy. He also gets the movies best line. As everyone is sitting in a smoke filled room looking over the will and someone offers him a cigarette he states “No thanks. I don’t need any. I’ll just breathe in the air.”

body heat 2

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: August 28, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 53Minutes

Rated R

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Studio: Warner Brothers

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