Tag Archives: Henry Fonda

The Great Smokey Roadblock (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old man keeps truckin’.

John Howard (Henry Fonda) is an aging truck driver laid up in a hospital while his rig is repossessed. Feeling that his life may soon be ending he decides to escape from the hospital, take back his rig, which he has named Eleanor after the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and go for one last cross-country run. He picks up a spiritual hitch-hiker (Robert Englund) as well as a group of prostitutes who hide in the truck in an effort to escape the law, but the authorities are onto John’s plans and try to stop him before he can complete his trip.

If there is one reason to watch this otherwise flat and forgettable flick it is for the performance of Fonda, who despite his ailing health still had what it took and easily commands the screen from his other co-stars. In fact Fonda creates such a strong presence that many of the ‘colorful’ supporting characters could’ve been scrapped completely as the most enjoyable moments come with Fonda conversing with Englund who has a diametrically different personality and perspective, as the two drive down the highway.

Eileen Brennan lends good support in a rare dramatic role and it’s fun seeing Susan Sarandon, who also co-produced, playing a minor part as one of the prostitutes. She looks so young here and it was hard to believe that only a decade later she would have aged so much that she would be playing a prostitute again in Bull Durham albeit a much more mature one.

Dub Taylor is enjoyable as a crazy, hick, which he has done many, many times before and it should’ve gotten old by now, but he always exudes so much energy in his parts that its highly diverting anyways. However, the efforts by Austin Pendleton, John Byner, and Valerie Curtain aren’t as entertaining and the motivations of their characters so unclear that it would’ve been better had they not been in it at all.

The only action comes when John takes his truck and crashes it through a police barrier, which gets shown in slow-motion. Whether a truck would’ve actually been able to plow through several police cars and not cause any injuries or fatalities and no significant damage to the rig itself is highly dubious and only helps to prove how trite and whimsical this whole thing is.

There are moments when the film seems to be straining for something deeper, but it never gets there. There are so many other, far better road movies out there that this one doesn’t even deserve an honorable mention. Writer/director John Leone is clearly working over-his-head here and it’s no surprise that this was his only feature in a movie that amounts to being a passable time waster at best and nothing more.

Alternate Titles: The Last of the Cowboys, The Goodbye Run

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: September 7, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: John Leone

Studio: American Cinema Releasing

Available: DVD

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

Ash Wednesday (1973)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 2 out of 10

4-Word Review: Liz gets a facelift.

Barbara (Elizabeth Taylor) is not aging gracefully. Her husband Mark (Henry Fonda) is having an affair with a much younger woman, but Barbara is determined to win him back. She decides to get a facelift and then spends her time afterwards at a winter resort in Italy where a young man name Erich (Helmut Berger) becomes intoxicated by her sudden youthful beauty and the two go to bed together. When her husband arrives she still strives to save the marriage, but finds that to him the facelift makes no difference.

The film’s biggest claim-to-fame is the graphic and vivid look at an actual facelift surgery that sickened many viewers who watched the film when it was first released. The footage is explicit, but fascinating as well as I never quite understood how this procedure worked, so seeing it from a medical viewpoint is to a certain extent educational. I also liked that during Barbara’s stay at the hospital she meets a middle-aged man named David (Keith Baxter) who has had several of the some procedures himself and showing that this wasn’t exclusively a woman’s issue although I was confused why a man would spend so much money having facelifts, but then not bother to dye his hair.

The effects of the procedure is a bit misleading because Liz was only 40 at the time and was put into heavy makeup to make her appear much older at the beginning, so the results of the surgery are really just her as she normally looked. The idea that a facelift would have such a galvanizing effect on everyone around her is also not realistic. A recent study found that many people who had the procedure ultimately only looked 3 to 5 years younger instead of the 10-plus that they had hoped for. Sometimes a facelift can make a person look even worse, or in my opinion a sort of ‘duckface’ that this movie doesn’t even hit on, but should’ve.

I also thought that the idea that this woman would want to stay with a man who is openly cheating on her was unrealistic. If this woman was poor, lonely and homely and he was her only source of a social outlet then maybe, but this guy was loaded and I would think most women would simply hire a good divorce lawyer and take the cheating cad to the cleaners and then merrily move on especially when she had already proven to herself that she could attract other more attractive men on her own anyways.

The role itself seems to be an extension of Taylor’s own personality in that of a woman living in an insular world obsessed with shallow problems because she has too much time and money on her hands and unable to either understand or portray an average person in a regular lifestyle even if she wanted to. The wide variety of big puffy hats and scarfs that she wears becomes a bit of a distraction and almost like a character into itself.

Fonda is wasted in another one his typical latter career roles that gives him very little to do. He doesn’t even appear onscreen until the final fifteen minutes and only then long enough to tell her he wants a divorce before promptly leaving.

The opening sequence showing the two stars aging through the years during the credits is interesting and well-done especially seeing Fonda when he was young. The musical score by Maurice Jarre has a nice classic flair to it and lifts this dreary production to a more classy level than it deserves, but unfortunately doesn’t get played much after the beginning.

The film probably would’ve worked better had the surgical procedure not happened right away, but instead been done in the middle and had more of a backstory at the beginning. The facelift scenes are actually the film’s highpoint and it goes rapidly downhill afterwards until it becomes a mind numbing train wreck that isn’t worth watching for any reason.

My Rating: 2 out of 10

Released: November 1, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated R

Director: Larry Peerce

Studio: Paramount

Available: VHS

Rollercoaster (1977)

rollercoaster

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Extortionist blows up rollercoasters.

A young man who is never given a name and is played by Timothy Bottoms is able to make home-made radio controlled bombs that he attaches to roller coaster rides at amusement parks. He threatens to blow up a major one during a big event unless he is given 1 million dollars. It is then up to Harry Calder (George Segal) the chief investigator to find the extortionist and the two end up playing an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse.

The film’s pacing is poor. It opens with the extortionist blowing up a roller coaster and Segal coming to investigate and then all of a sudden it cuts to an uninspired ten minute segment involving Segal’s family life before it finally gets back to the investigation. Outside of seeing a young Helen Hunt as his daughter, the family scenes offer nothing and should have been scraped completely.

Despite having ‘disaster epic’ written all over it the filmmaker’s unwisely decided to make this more of an ‘intellectual thriller’ with very little action or special effects. The only real action/special effects come at the beginning when Bottoms blows up a coaster and everyone on it comes crashing down. However, it looks too sanitized and fake as it is far too obvious that it is dummies inside of the coaster cars and not real people.

As the villain Bottoms has got to be one of the dullest you will ever see. Absolutely nothing about him is interesting and there is no back story given as to why he is doing this or how he manages to be so very clever. Henry Fonda is wasted in a ridiculously small and insignificant role and one wonders why he would have even taken it.

Segal plays his part with a good ‘everyman’ quality that makes him easily relatable and it is nice to see him living in an apartment that is reasonably sloppy. It is also fun to watch him ride a roller coaster while everyone else is screaming he just sits there looking bored. Richard Widmark is equally good and possibly at his most gruff and abrasive and the sparing relationship that he has with Segal is entertaining. The intricate cat-and-mouse game that Segal plays with Bottoms isn’t too bad either. There are a few impressive shots where the camera is mounted on the front roller coaster car and then is glided along the tracks at high speeds giving the viewer of a very realistic feeling of actually being on a roller coaster.

Ultimately the film just does not live up to expectations and needed more special effects, more action, more suspense, and just plain more disaster. The bad guy should’ve been more distinctive and a much more prominent role for Fonda as some feel he may be one of the great actors of all time so if you got him use him.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: June 17, 1977

Runtime: 1Hour 59Minutes

Rated PG

Director: James Goldstone

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD