Friday, May 11, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - Jack Starrett's THE DION BROTHERS (aka THE GRAVY TRAIN)

As some of you can tell, my postings typically tend to focus on what's happening on the cinema scene in the NY/NJ part of the world (with the occasional trip to Austin or Philly) since that's where I happen to hang my hat. But allow me to spread a little love to you left coasters in order to alert you to a pretty cool screening that will be taking place out there next weekend and gives me an opportunity to do another Forgotten Movies segment. The American Cinematheque's Santa Monica offshoot, The Aero Theater, is participating in the month long series of great and unheralded films of the 1970s that is also happening at the main Cinematheque theater in Hollywood. For all of NYC's many locations for revival and retrospective screenings (we're pretty lucky in that regard), none of those theaters match the quality and the coolness of the Cinematheque (or the Alamo Drafthouse, for that matter), which has killer programming (courtesy of Chris D) of plenty of rare screenings and (thanks to the L.A. location) access to many great guests. Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater is probably the closest we come to anything like that (a three week Lee Marvin retrospective begins today with a screening of POINT BLANK with John Boorman in attendance, so it's not all that bad), but while I appreciate things like retrospectives of little-known Spanish or Italian filmmakers, stuff like the Cinematheque's annual Noir festivals are, let's be honest, a lot more fun. And speaking of fun (a more ham-handed segue I doubt I've ever written) you Angelinos/Hollywoodites/Santa Monicans should take the time out of your busy schedules of script meetings, liposuction, Starbucks lattes and sitting in traffic on the 405 to check out next Saturday's one-time screening of Jack Starrett's THE DION BROTHERS (originally released as THE GRAVY TRAIN) for a forgotten film that's starting to make a name for itself again.

I had never heard of it until about 5 years ago when I was planning to show a bunch of movies in my old apartment in the Bronx (with a nice, big white wall, perfect for projecting movies onto) with a film print collector of mine. He had a 16mm print of it and thought it would be perfect programming (it was a 70s crime fest where we also showed Di Leo's MANHUNT, Starrett's earlier RUN, ANGEL, RUN and THE BURGLARS). Taking his word for it, I later discovered that the film also showed at the 2nd QT Fest in Austin, where it was a big hit with the audience, so that sealed the deal. The film certainly lived up to my friend's promise and everyone enjoyed it, but I have to admit that as time went on I forgot about much of it. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since I was able to look upon the film with nearly fresh eyes when I saw it again at the April 2006 Best of QT Fest. I'm guessing the film's legend had grown in the time between its first screening there and its last, because it seemed to be the film that many in the audience were looking forward to the most and they were more than happy with what they saw. It helped in no small part from an incredibly enthusiastic introduction from Tarantino (more so than usual) which supplied the proper amount of over hype and it seems like the audience for this film simply wasn't born when it was first released. This Aero screening is one of the first non-QT, non-my old apartment screenings that I've heard of (could be wrong) and if anything, I hope its double feature pairing with Starrett's RACE WITH THE DEVIL helps to grow the fan base not just for this film but also for its much too underrated director (and hopefully secure a much-needed DVD release, as well).

Jack Starrett was an interesting filmmaker in a lot of ways. Starting as an actor (he played Gabby Hayes in BLAZING SADDLES), he was mainly stuck with action films, which he was exceptionally talented at, I think because as an actor/director, he was able to focus more on character and performance than most pictures of these type usually do. He started out making movies with William Smith (RUN, ANGEL, RUN, THE LOSERS, HOLLYWOOD MAN) but in the mid-70s he was on a roll and moved up from low-budget indies to major studio titles like SLAUGHTER, CLEOPATRA JONES, and RACE WITH THE DEVIL. THE DION BROTHERS was one of those pictures, made for Columbia in '74, the story of two brothers from Appalachia who quit their jobs and decide to turn to a life of crime in order to finance their dream of opening a seafood restaurant. Unfortunately, it was a box office disappointment, although Columbia tried again with a second release under the new title (which I've got to admit is a better title) that likewise didn't work. Like with a lot of good movies that fail to connect with audiences, it's hard to say why THE DION BROTHERS wasn't a bigger hit, but I suspect that the film's rather rambling style, in truth one of its greatest strengths, is what might have done it in. I suppose it helps to know that it was co-written by Terrence Malick, who was also the original director (I don't know if Starrett replaced him before or during shooting), and knowing Malick's work it's understandable as to how the film turned out like so. Even though he supposedly has disowned the film (he took a pseudonym), the film still has traces of him in it, because it doesn't seem to want to adhere to a standard structure; The Dion Brothers don't go through some big character arc and they remain simple guys, headstrong and likeable, throughout, all this in spite of their turning to a life of crime.

I mentioned Starrett's ability with actors before and it's The Dion Brothers themselves, Stacy Keach and the great Frederick Forrest, who really make the picture. Of course, they're supposed to, but these two guys are absolutely delightful and make for a great team. The Dions are not especially bright and they seem to get by more on luck than any kind of particular skill, but Keach and Forrest don't turn them into fools. One of the film's joys is watching Keach shoot his mouth off about anything that comes to mind, proving him to be a man who sure thinks a lot for someone who doesn't know much, and Forrest's unflagging devotion to his brother provides a perfect backup. They're a great team, and what's more disappointing than the fact that they never worked together again is the fact that they won't be together again at the Aero on the 19th as originally scheduled (Keach is the no-show, I guess because he's working), although Forrest will be there along with co-star Barry Primus and Mark Rydell, who is not in the film the best that I can recall, but I'm sure he'll make for a good guest. I have the feeling there will be lots of great stories about the making of the film and about its director, so if you're in the area and can make it, I highly recommend you do, because you'll have a good time and leave with a big smile on your face.

Lastly, I can't discuss both THE DION BROTHERS or Jack Starrett without mentioning the action scenes, which are first rate in every way. Starrett knew how to shoot action (THE LOSERS has some fantastic motorcycle stunts) and both films being screened have memorable stunt sequences that will make your mouths drop by their audacity. THE DION BROTHERS' climax, set (and seemingly shot!) in an abandoned building as it's undergoing demolition, automatically bounces the film's rating up by half a star, while the chaces in RACE WITH THE DEVIL leave no doubt in my mind that they proved to be the inspiration for DEATH PROOF's brilliant climatic chase. OK, enough already - go see these movies next Saturday!

1 comment:

Jolyon Brown said...

I agree totally. This is a great movie. Came across it once on late night British TV in the 90's. As far as I know it's never been shown over here since. But it was watched on VHS many imes after and some of the dialogue still comes up in conversation with my mates. Was the version you've seen/being shown uncensored? It seemed clear as I recall that 'Kirk freakin Douglas' was dubbed when I saw it, and presumably other dialogue had been too. If there is another version not dubbed for TV I'd love to see it. Pity I can't make the screenings, it's one of my all ime favourites. Where is the DVD, that's what I want to know.