Monday, July 6, 2009

The '30s in the '70s

Harris Yulin in Melvin Purvis: G-Man (left) and Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama (right)

The latest big-screen John Dillinger treatment -- Michael Mann's Public Enemies, starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger -- took in a respectable $25M this past weekend, and cable telly was rife with related programming. These TV tie-ins included a History Channel documentary entitled Crime Wave: 18 Months of Mayhem (which concerned Dillinger and contemporaries like Baby Face Nelson and Clyde Barrow) and a re-broadcast of the 1974 telefilm Melvin Purvis: G-Man (an awfully loose-with-the-facts account of the apprehension of Machine Gun Kelly).

But even with all this attention currently re-directed to the Depression-era bank robbers, we'd have to manically crank out a giant fistful of Public Enemies cash-ins if we wanted to approach the all-out mania over '30s bank-robbers that the 1970s experienced.

Warren Oates in a publicity shot for 1973's Dillinger

Yeah, between '70-'79, there were nearly a dozen films made about bank robbing during the Great Depression. Was this just a decade's worth of imitators of the influential 1967 movie Bonnie & Clyde? Or was there something about social conditions of the day (the 1973 Oil Crisis, etc) that made the 1930s seem particularly relevant? I'd guess both, as the '70s produced all sorts of Depression-era movies that had zilch-o to do with bank robbing: Hard Times, The Sting, Book of Numbers, Lucky Lady, Inserts (and They Shoot Horses, Don't They? if we grandfather in the year 1969!).

But this is all just a long-winded way of introducing the below -- my attempt to make a definitive list of the 1970s films about 1930s bank robbers:

Bloody Mama (1970)
With Shelley Winters as Kate ‘Ma’ Barker, American International Pictures

A Bullet for Pretty Boy (1970)

With Fabian as Charles Arthur Floyd, American International Pictures

Dillinger (1973)
With Warren Oates as John Dillinger, Ben Johnson as Melvin Purvis, Richard Dreyfus as Baby Face Nelson, and Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd, American International Pictures

Bad Charleston Charlie (1973)

With Ross Hagen and Hoke Howell as fictional characters, International Cinema

Big Bad Mama (1974)
With Angie Dickinson, Tom Skeritt and William Shatner as fictional characters, New World Pictures

Melvin Purvis, G-Man (1974)

aka The Legend of Machine Gun Kelly
With Dale Robertson as Melvin Purvis and Harris Yulin as George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, TV Movie

The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd (1974)

With Martin Sheen as Charles Arthur Floyd, TV Movie

The F.B.I. Story: The FBI Versus Alvin Karpis, Public Enemy Number One (1974)

aka Alvin Karpis: Public Enemy No. 1
aka The FBI Story - Alvin Karpis

With Robert Foxworth as Alvin Karpis, Eileen Heckart as Ma Barker and Harris Yulin as J. Edgar Hoover, TV Movie

The Kansas City Massacre (1975)

With Dale Robertson as Melvin Purvis, Bo Hopkins as Charles Arthur 'Pretty Boy' Floyd, William Jordan as John Dillinger, and Elliot Street as 'Baby Face' Nelson, TV Movie

The Lady in Red (1979)

With Robert Conrad as John Dillinger and Alan Vint as Melvin Purvis, New World Pictures.

As should be evident, this cinematic explosion would not have happened if not for the studios with which Roger Corman was associated (AIP, New World) and if not for TV movies. Since neither are strong forces in today's cinema, I guess we'll have to see if Asylum (the ripoff-meisters responsible Transmorphers and Snakes on a Train) want to jump on the Dillinger bandwagon. (Haw.)

And as a completist, I should mention that the 1970s European cinema got into the '30s crime movement too -- with such films as Borsalino, Even Angels Eat Beans and Pete, Pearl and the Pole -- but they were usually about gangsterism in general and not necessarily bank robbery in particular.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Yin and Yang: Remembering *Both* David Carradines

David Carradine didn’t have to depart in a blaze of scandal and tragedy in Thailand; the actor was still racking up plenty of notoriety. One of Carradine’s final headline-making actions was a March appearance at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a screening of Bound for Glory – the 1976 film that earned him a Golden Globe nomination – which turned ugly. By all reports (and from the audio file floating around on the internet), Carradine ended up verbally brawling with the film’s cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and members of the audience. Apparently at one point he threw a microphone that struck American Cinematheque publicist Margot Gerber.

And while this may seem like an unfortunate or embarrassing incident to some, it instead should be viewed as a late entry in Carradine’s legacy as a lovable Hollywood hellraiser. The actor’s 1995 memoir, Endless Highway, has him doing similar trouble-making in previous decades – running down streets naked and bleeding while hopped up on peyote, licking a dancer’s cleavage at a strip club and escaping from cops after wrecking his Ferrari 330GTS.

But will this bad-boy image (to say nothing of his schlockier film choices) forever overshadow and re-write the history of Carradine’s gentler side? After all, this was an actor who began working in Hollywood during the flower-powered late ‘60s and fathered a son named “Free” with his then-soulmate Barbara Seagull (that's Ms. Hershey, currently, to you).

And let us not forget – I literally mean that! – the beautiful films he directed in the 1970s. See, you can argue whether Carradine’s dramatic acting work for Scorcese and Bergman was more important to him than his action performances for Corman and Tarantino, but if you really want to get a feel for the guy, watch the pictures he directed! You and Me (produced in 1972 and never released in the U.S.) is about as sweet as a film can get and still be called a Biker Movie. And Americana (produced in 1973 and released in 1981) is the simple tale of a Vietnam vet who renovates a rusty carousel in a small town – not a karate chop in sight!

Carradine rehabbing a carousel in Americana and
being a (relatively) nice-guy biker in You and Me.

But why am I beating a drum for Carradine’s thoughtful side when even he seemed to want to suppress this? In a 1973 cover story for Esquire, Carradine boasted about reading only car and girlie mags (Oui and Penthouse are cited amongst his favorites), and the actor said he doesn’t give a crap about the Eastern mysticism practiced by his Kung Fu character, Kwai Chang Caine.

Nonetheless, he certainly possessed a sensitive creativity, and I hope he felt appreciated for it. Around the time of Kill Bill, The Man himself invited me over for a nice, long personal interview. I remember, upon my leaving, saying something like, “Mr. Carradine, I really do appreciate your artistry.” Although corny, it was a true statement, as I really had found an individual voice in his little-seen directorial efforts and his country-rock compositions (check out his song “Paint” from the film Sonny Boy).

But for some reason, my praise caused him to narrow his eyes and look at me suspiciously – as if I were putting him on. Sadly, I can only guess that after years of appearing in low-budget affairs (roughly his Evil Toons [1992] to Down’n’ Dirty [2000] period), he was unaccustomed to the word “artistry” being used in conjunction with his career. Sad.

But whatever his capabilities as an artist, the hell-raising outlaw image suited him. And he did it so well, with such cool.

I remember covering a celebrity autograph convention circa 2003 at which Carradine was scheduled to attend. Fashionably late, Carradine kicked the double doors open (or at least that’s how his entrance plays in my romanticized memory) and strode in with a large shaggy dog by his side. I was surprised they allowed pets in the room, but Carradine was much less concerned. The actor let his furry bull-in-a-china-shop run free through the convention hall, and the overzealously friendly beast jumped on someone’s video tripod, knocking an expensive camera to the floor. Did Carradine give a damn? Nah. He just sauntered over to his table, where he probably busied himself with his usual convention behavior: working a crossword puzzle until some pesky fan came by and bothered him for an autograph.

That was David Carradine. At least one of them.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

One from Mickey's 'missing' period: This BULLET doesn't need dodging

I just read a so-so Mickey Rourke career profile -- and career prediction -- over on Yahoo ("Rourke is Back, But for How Long?"), and the article basically tri-sected Rourke's career into his first wave of stardom ('80s), his period outside Hollywood favor ('90s), and his comeback (now).

The piece described his middle period as a time during which he "was scraping by acting in dreck like Dennis Rodman vehicle DOUBLE TEAM" -- implying that Rourke was slumming big-time. That's okay as an oversimplification, maybe, but it does little justice to his surprisingly excellent mid-90s tough-and-gritty crime film, BULLET.

Maybe BULLET is easily overlooked because inadequate thesp Tupac features so prominently in the campaign for the film, when in fact Rourke is the lead -- and future Oscar winner Adrien Brody has the next largest role (to say nothing of Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine as another one of his memorable big-screen weirdos). I'm sure most people who spy the DVD cover artwork never bother with the movie itself; I'm guessing Yahoo's Rourke essayist sure didn't (and come to think of it, I'm not sure why I first watched it either -- unless it was because I had learned that the best '90s crime films are sometimes the biggest box-office failures; Barbet Schroeder's KISS OF DEATH remake is an excellent slice of underworld and would probably have been re-discovered by now, if not for David Caruso's current state of self-parody on CSI MIAMI).

So what makes BULLET such a great low-budget crimer?

Besides having great production values and performances (especially for what basically ended up being a direct-to-video product), and some shocking violence (switchblade through the eye socket, anyone?), the film has a nice urban (and druggy) grittiness, thanks to director Julien Temple, who's primarily known for music videos.

Some, ahem, eye-opening violence.

More intererstingly, the film has some unique variations on the typical street-level crime-movie characters: Rourke's badass Bullet character happens to be sexually impotent, his right-hand man is a repressed homosexual of the CheesyMacho variety and one of his brothers has been rendered both a expert killer and a dirty-underweared social misfit by his traumatic time in the service.

But these realistically quirky characters never strain to be "movie quirky" -- unlike the giant wave of poor PULP FICTION imitators (2 DAYS IN THE VALLEY, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER...) being made during the mid-90s. (This crappy subgenre, which also contains THURSDAY and the criminally overrated gimmick movie THE USUAL SUSPECTS, sadly accounts for the bulk of American crime cinema in the '90s.)

Also interesting about BULLET is its glimpse into the lives of Jewish hoodlums; cinema has fixated so unswervingly on Italian-American crime that when a BULLET or a PLOT AGAINST HARRY comes along, it gives these films some real identity (Roruke co-wrote the screenplay -- pseudonymously as "Sir Eddie Cook" -- with a Bruce Rubenstein).

Any guess as to Bullet's cultural background?

In addition to his acting and writing contributions to the film, Rourke also handled music supervision, and the multiple uses of the Barry White song "Never, Never Gonna Give You Up" also lends the film some individual personality. I'm not sure why more movies with a popular-music soundtrack don't do this: use a song repeatedly until it becomes the movie's unofficial theme. Excellent stuff.

Question: Former lightweight fighter Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini has a small role in BULLET as a cop (Mancini has had a slight-but-steady acting career since his days in the ring). Did he and Rourke know each other from the boxing world? Dunno. Anyone?