Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Forgotten Movies - Jack Arnold's NO NAME ON THE BULLET

I used to know someone who was downright obsessed with Audie Murphy. He was a fanzine writer who wrote about almost nothing but Murphy and 50s westerns - not very well, despite the passion - and his idol worship of Murphy, who I had never heard of before I met this guy, tainted my initial impression of this unique individual. He'd talk of Murphy like some genius talent we should all bow down to, while Murphy's films were spoken of like they were they were Kurosawa's, and it got to be embarrassing after a point. But I eventually did learn a lot about Murphy (he claimed to be working on a book about Murphy which, no surprise, never materialized): That he was the most decorated solider of WWII and that he stumbled onto acting not long after that (Cagney apparently saw star potential in him and suggested he give acting a try), eventually becoming a star. He specialized in westerns and war pictures with his most famous being John Houston's film version of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE and then TO HELL AND BACK, where Murphy played himself, based on his autobiography. NO NAME ON THE BULLET happened to be the name of this person's fanzine, so when I finally found out that there was, in fact, an Audie Murphy movie by that title, I was under no real hurry to seek it out. But as the years went by - and as I dropped any contact with this person - I'd read a bit more about Murphy, and especially his westerns, and I took an interest. And now having seen NO NAME ON THE BULLET, I have to say that Mr. Murphy's overzealous fan was at least right about one thing: This is a pretty damn good movie, and Murphy's the best thing about it.

One thing about NO NAME ON THE BULLET I personally find to be interesting is that it comes from the tail end of the 50s western revival (1959, specifically), when the genre had evolved throughout the decade to become smarter, more mature, even darker at times. It was this decade that brought us the best the genre ever had to offer, like WINCHESTER '73, THE SEARCHERS, THE TALL T, 3:10 TO YUMA and GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, and NO NAME ON THE BULLET was a picture that took the genre as seriously as they did, even though it was, on the outside, a mere Universal programmer. Well throughout the decade, Universal made numerous quickie westerns (and some classics, too, like the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart pictures), and NO NAME ON THE BULLET was meant to be nothing more than that, teaming Murphy with top Universal contract director Jack Arnold (best known for his sci-fi films like IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE). But in what seems to be a fine example of pure luck or the stars alligning, Arnold and Murphy got their hands on a solid script from Gene L. Coon (later a regular writer on STAR TREK) and made a quickie western that has stood the test of time pretty well. The thing that makes NO NAME ON THE BULLET works so well is that it's got a hook, and if you've got a hook, then you're always off to a solid start in my book. Premise finds notorious professional gun Murphy riding into a small town that suddenly grows paranoid over his appearance. It's known that Murphy is there to kill someone, but just who is it? Those with something to hide are suddenly running scared, while those who suspect others of hiring Murphy, call out their enemies. Murphy, meanwhile, just sits out all the paranoia, befriending doctor Charles Drake, and waiting for the right time to make his kill, which he always does by getting the other person to draw first. That, my dear readers, is what I call a good hook.

What sets NO NAME ON THE BULLET apart, aside from said hook, are two things. First, Arnold keeps things small and efficient. Even though he's shooting in Cinemascope (as was pretty much the norm at the time), he's basically got a small cast of capable players (including the always-welcome R.G. Armstrong), not a lot of locations (Universal lot, mainly) and little in the way of unnecessary plotting. NO NAME ON THE BULLET is only 77 minutes long, but it's a tight 77 minutes, with little to none wasted material or ideas. Within all of this, Coon's script is able to bring up some parallels to 50s paranoia (McCarthyism and the Red Scare) while smartly sticking within western genre conventions of the time. And it's also got a good villain, which makes for that second plus, Murphy's lead performance. This was the only villain Murphy ever played, and it's a solid piece of work all-around, especially in how his character spends a lot of time just sitting back and watching others trip all over themselves to discover what he's after. By doing that, Murphy convincingly comes across as the intimidating and cruel man this character is supposed to be, and he stays very much in character throughout (he never tries to show a softer side) to help put this one over the top as a quality picture. What's interesting is trying to figure out if this guy is truly smarter than everyone else, or simply just good at killing and drawing out his prey. He's a legitimately dangerous character, and by using someone like Murphy - who always possessed a simple, down-home Texas charm - Arnold is able to add an element of dread that casting someone who specialized in villians might not have brought to the film. Needless to say, this is very effective casting, and it pretty much makes the movie.

Unlike a lot of The Forgotten Movies, NO NAME ON THE BULLET is available on DVD in a relatively satisfying presentation from Universal. It's widescreen and contains a trailer, but it doesn't cost too much and what matters here is the movie, not any fancy add-ons. It's a quick, easy watch, and you get a pretty satisfying 77 minutes out if it.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Terrible Twos

This here little blog turned two yesterday. Perhaps not a reason for a new national holiday, but it's an opportunity for me to reflect upon the last year's worth of posts, and basically the last year in general. In going over the numbers there were actually fewer postings this year than last, which is partly because of the demands of the new job at Fantastic Fest and also partly because the muse doesn't seem to hit as much as it does when you're working a job that actually requires you to work. My previous job was one that afforded me more free time than my bosses realized, which was part of the reason why I ended up doing so much more writing in 2007. The scene changed in 2008, and though I'm not complaining about the job or it's demands, I find myself working on this when I'm off the clock, and that can be draining sometimes. Too tired to think, to tired to write, not always writing my best; it's not always easy. I know that things can be a hell of a lot worse off, but I had more time on my hands when I was making more money and less content with what I was doing. Now I make less and bust my ass more, though I'm much more content. It's a bit odd.

There's also the matter of life itself and how that has changed. The early part of last year was a tough, tough time for me, and it gave way to a lot of self-reflection which gave way to a lot of writing. I think some of my best stuff came from this period, though I'm really not sure I'd be willing to go through it all again if I had that opportunity, because it hurt like a son of a bitch. Still, it was a productive time, and all of the pre-move writing from last year (up to late April) was done with a certain passion that I feel is a bit lost. This time last year I hoped to move onto writing full time (or at least enough to make a living out of it), and while most of my non-HQ 10 writing these days is more along the line of Fantastic Fest sales pitches, it's great to have HQ 10 to be the place to go when I've got something to say about this art form that I love so dearly. Writing is a groove that can sometimes be tough to fit into, but when it's right there's a lot you can get going out of it. I'd like to think that, for the most part, I'm getting it more right than wrong. But that's not really up for me to decide.

Some personal faves from the last two years:

February movies

The George A. Romero interview

In a Lonely Place - The Movies

The Forgotten Movies (all of them)

The Children of George and Steven

Taurog! Taurog! Taurog!

Laserdiscs Remembered

All those Fantastic Fest reviews

Remembering George Willig

That's about it. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Radley Metzger.

I first met Radley Metzger almost 8 years ago, back in March of 2001. I’d just started working for the company that was distributing his films on video, and he stopped in one afternoon to drop off materials for a project he’d been working on, a sort of “Best of” compilation of the lesbian scenes from his films (and those of Audubon Films, his distribution company) called GIRLS WHO LIKE GIRLS. I knew of his reputation as the classiest of all erotic filmmakers, but I’d never seen any of his films at the time and didn’t know just what I would be able to talk to him about, other than saying hello and telling him how much I looked forward to selling his titles. Much to my surprise, we spoke for about a half hour (at a distance; I had a cold at the time and he was concerned about catching it) about a variety of things, but mostly about film - about new films he’d seen and liked, about favorites and my own personal interest – and the only reason we stopped was because my boss interrupted us to remind me that I had to get back to work. Radley would show up at the offices once every couple of weeks, and when he did we’d always find time to talk. We became friends outside of the office, too, and when I was (ahem) “let go” of that job at the end of 2003, we stayed in touch. We still have lunch every so often, though less often now that I’m in Austin (though we found time during the holidays), and while he has thus far resisted my numerous offers for us to pay tribute to him at the Alamo Drafthouse, I’m determined to get him down here one of these days. He’s a wonderful man, and I’m honored to say he’s my friend.

More so than that, he’s also an immensely talented filmmaker, and I say that in the present tense, despite the fact that he hasn’t directed a picture since 1984, because I know in my heart that he will direct again someday. Once I finally sat down to look at some of his films, I was more than impressed with what I saw, that being a director who understood very well the importance of the image but never did so at the expense of the story or the characters. His films (even the Henry Paris ones) are not just mere classy erotica, but also classy cinema, period, and knowing what a student and lover of film history the man is I understand a little bit more than others just how they all got that way. This is a total filmmaker, one who truly understands how to make a real movie, and while I suppose he could have moved away from erotica to make other kinds of pictures (which he did – and did well - with 1978’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY) the fact that was the best at what he did certainly helps to set him apart. Like the “other” RM (Russ Meyer) a Radley Metzger film looks, feels and sounds like no one else’s. His pictures are fun and provocative, but never really lightweight; there’s always something beyond the sex and games, a thoughtfulness and maturity to sex and relationships that few other filmmakers (and certainly no other erotic filmmakers) have ever really been able to match. It’s almost a mistake to call Radley an “erotic filmmaker”, because his films were never really sex films as much as they were films about sex; character pieces where sex was the main topic of conversation and the point of motivations for everyone involved. They’re also about intimacy, about the need to understand and care for the people we love as much as they do us, and I always find it interesting how, for the most part, almost every one of his lead characters ends up a better, happier and healthier person in the end. (OK, except for the ones who die, I’ll grant you that.)

The general conscientious among those who know his work is that his best film is 1970’s THE LICKERISH QUARTET (though SCORE and THE IMAGE have their fans, too), and I'm inclined to agree with them. THE LICKERISH QUARTET has become more than just my favorite film of Radley’s, but one of my favorite films of all time, one that I’m inclined to revisit now and again. People who don’t really understand genre films often point out how LICKERISH is some kind of goofy mixture of erotic film and art film, but what they don’t seem to get is that it’s really Radley making his grand statement on cinema, a personal message from him to his audience in the manner that he wants to tell it, and I love and admire the film all the more because of the private nature of it. Some have called the film pretentious - though I think one person’s pretension is another’s ambition – but not everyone is going to get it when you’re laying it all out like this, and perhaps I’m seeing more of my friend than most viewers ever would. But I love it to death. Then again, that’s what THE LICKERISH QUARTET is all about, anyway. The set-up – Bourgeoisie family invite a beautiful young woman back to their home after seeing her in a stag film, then discover the film now features different performers when they screen it in front of her – can really go either way, but what Radley does here is that he lets you in on our shared secret: He knows that you’re not going to see the film as he sees it. The movie that’s going on in your mind may well be 100% different from the one he’s making. Who you are - your life experiences, loves, and sorrow – will make his film what you want it to be and not what he made. We all sit there and share the same experience, but we experience it differently, and the same goes for love and relationships, too. As the film progresses, the young woman (played by Silvana Venturelli, who also co-starred in Radley’s CAMILLE 2000) seduces all the members of the family by being whatever it is they want her to be – their ideal fantasy, the person who really listens to them – and in doing so becomes that thing that most people think eludes them, the one who can bring them happiness, just as moviegoers look to the screen to get some long-lost feeling back. That Radley does all this within the confines of an erotic film also happens to be one of the things I love about THE LICKERISH QUARTET, because by making this a genre film and an art film at the same time, he’s challenging the audience to love the film solely as it is, not as what they think it is or wants it to be. It’s a movie that’s as much about watching and movies as it is about the people in it, and I would think and hope that anyone who loves film as much as I do (or Radley does) would understand this and come to love THE LICKERISH QUARTET, providing they even see it, of course. It’s the film that I instantly think of when I think of Radley. It’s his masterpiece.

Radley Metzger turns 80 years old today. I can tell you that he’s as fit and healthy a man at 80 than I wish I could ever be, along with a wit and wisdom that makes him cooler than most anyone else I know. (He also has a great hair. I don’t know how he does it, but it always looks real good.) To my friend, I say, Happy Birthday and I wish there are many more to come. And to the filmmaker, I say, please get back behind the camera. Nobody makes movies like you, and we need more of them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hamburger Dude

Little did I know when I went to my friend Kayla Kromer's housewarming on Saturday that I would be seen in the shot that went around the world - or certain parts of the internet, at least. I think that it's great that so many people are digging the Cheeseburger bed (Kayla doesn't want to call that, but if it's got cheese on it then it's a cheeseburger bed, end of story) and I can't help but admire all the work and effort that Kayla put into this (fellow pal Jasmine Baker supplied the pickle pillow and sesame seeds). She mentioned to me how much she wanted a Hamburger Bed after seeing one in HAMBURGER - THE MOTION PICTURE (which screened at the Alamo a few months back) and I never doubted she would make it happen, though I didn't think it would capture so many people's imagination. It's a damn comfortable bed, by the way, and incredibly toasty warm, too (helps on those cold January nights). I don't know if this is going to end up the big internet sensation of 2009, but kudos to Kayla for sticking to her vision of a burger-filled slumber and making it happen. The Hamburger Bed should be an inspiration to us all.

Feel free to befriend it on Facebook, by the way.

(photo by Heather Leigh Kennedy)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Forgotten Movies - Bruce Beresford's MONEY MOVERS (1979)

The big thing in the cult movie universe these days is Ozploitation, or Australian exploitation films of the 70s and 80s, as highlighted by Mark Hartley's excellent documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, due to open in March from Magnolia Pictures. It's nice to see these forgotten pics get their due here in the U.S., and hopefully it will open the gates for several of these films to get a release over here, since the Aussie cinematic golden age gave us a hell of a lot of good films that either never made it here or have fallen out of license. (My pals at Synapse Films have already gotten the ball rolling with such films as PATRICK and STRANGE BEHAVIOR, with the excellent giant croc epic DARK AGE due for release some time in '09.) While many of these films have been released on DVD in their homeland, there's zero market for them, import-wise, and there's unquestionably some hidden gems out there. Having dug into some of these imports recently, one of the first that I've discovered is Bruce Beresford's MONEY MOVERS, a heist flick from '79 that shows that Aussie crime cinema of the 70s was as solid as it was in the states and that the conventions of film noir transplanted just as well to Australia as they did to France in the 50s and 60s.

A film titled MONEY MOVERS could only be a heist movie (or an expose on the life of accountants), though in this case it has a literal meaning, too, since the heist concerns a Sydeny-based payroll company. Based on a book by a former security officer (and inspired by two 1970 robberies), MONEY MOVERS wisely begins by dictating the inner workings of the company itself for its first 15 minutes so that we get a good idea of not just how difficult it would be for someone to knock it over, but also what exactly is at stake. Since this is a security company and not a bank, everyone has guns, everyone has an attitude and, most important of all, most everyone has a reason to knock the place over. It's an inside job all the way, planned by Terrance Donovan, his brother Bryan Brown and another employee, three guys who've been with the company long enough to be trusted and long enough to be enticed by all that money. Their motives are practically secondary; they're determined to do the job they've been planning for 5 years and now there's a fire lit under them to finally get it done. These things don't always go as planned, of course, and there are numerous complications - unwanted third parties muscling in on the job, suspicious co-workers, fall guys who don't fall so easily - and much of what makes MONEY MOVERS so compelling is the matter-of-fact storytelling technique that Beresford employs, while at the same time never losing sight of the genre he's in or pretending that he - or the film - are above it. The fact that MONEY MOVERS feels very much like many of the other quality Aussie films of its era - while at the same time a heist movie - is what makes it feel fresh to me. This is one of the few attempts to make a modern day noir that works on its own terms, especially without feeling like a rip-off or (even worse) a homage. Yes, it could have been made by Fox in the Forties with Tyrone Power or Dana Andrews, or by Melville with Lino Ventura in the early 60s, but with all the bright Aussie locations and Down Under attitudes, MONEY MOVERS is very much its own movie.

That said, it's also very much Bruce Beresford's movie, and it serves as a reminder that this guy used to be a really good director some time ago. Well before he turned Hollywood, Beresford's Aussie films (and the fine TENDER MERCIES, his U.S. debut) had this natural quality to them that helped to define the Aussie cinema of the 70s that felt lived-in and felt organically Australian (the BARRY McKENZIE films excepted, of course). Many of these pictures were quiet, character-based stories about simple people whose problems Beresford was able to make seem enormously important and became intriguing because of that. MONEY MOVERS takes the same approach and it not only proves to be completely the right but also makes it unique for this genre; Making the characters all working class Aussies make them feel more human, easier to relate to and empathetic (for as much as thieves can be), and the lack of a score helps to add to the natural feeling and brings up the tension. At the same time, I'm also impressed by MONEY MOVERS as a thriller and in how respectful it is of the heist film genre. All of the usual trappings are there, but the feeling is fresh and unique.

Apparently, MONEY MOVERS was not a hit in Aussie cinemas back in '79 and its sole U.S. release was on VHS back in the early 80s, so it's ripe for a rediscovery and a re-evaluation. I'm gonna call Don over at Synapse and see what we can do.