Black Sunday (1977)

Hey There Blimpy Boy, Flying Through The Sky So Fancy-Free!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Black Sunday is another addition to the “They couldn’t make that nowadays club”. Unsurprisingly in a post 9/11 world, no studio would want to touch a film about a terrorist attack at the Super Bowl, nor would any company or brand want to be associated with it. Yet in 1977, a mainstream film was released about such an attack with cooperation from the National Football League and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company – now I can’t look at a Good Year blimp and not think of Black Sunday. Likewise looking at the film from a political point of view, it’s highly unlikely modern, left-wing Hollywood would make a film which is pro-Zionist and features Palestinians as terrorists. The terror group in Black Sunday is the real-life Black September of whom were behind the 1972 Munich Massacre – this was the basis for the inspiration behind Black Sunday.

Black Sunday was one of several high profile underperformers to be released in 1977 including Sorcerer, Cross of Iron, New York, New York and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. These films may be able to attribute their lack of success at least in part due to the release of Star Wars. Although Black Sunday’s timing was also compromised by another film about terrorism at a football game which was released months earlier in the form of Two Minute Warning starring Charlton Heston – a poor man’s version of Black Sunday. As of writing this review in 2020, Black Sunday can be viewed in high definition online but has yet to receive a Blu-ray release in any region. I can only speculate if corporate or political reasoning has any part to play in this.

Black Sunday is led by a trio of performers at the top of their game. Marthe Keller has a sinister presence as Black September member Dahlia Iyad. The Arab Mata Hari is no more unsettling than during the sequence in a hospital in which she disguises herself as a nurse to poison Israeli agent David Kabakov (Robert Shaw) in this very Terminator-like scenario. Dahlia is married to the mentally unhinged, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, Michael Lander (Bruce Dern). Lander is s divorcee who doesn’t get to see his children; the background behind Michael and Dahlia’s relationship is never revealed but is fascinating on the surface. There appears to be legitimate heartfelt feeling towards the two yet their bond is ultimately over ideology. Michael romanticizes himself and his wife’s martyrdom and in one scene basks in sheer euphoria with her after they have a successful weapons test which kills an innocent bystander – a disturbing look into the mind of a terrorist.

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Through Michael, Black Sunday also comments on the treatment of Vietnam veterans back home. In one scene Michael is not treated with respect by the rude receptionist at the Veterans Administration Hospital and made to wait amongst a crowded waiting area before seeing a psychiatrist. Yet during the film, he is still seen wearing his military uniform and taking pride in the medals he earned even though he plans to commit terror against the United States. When he flies the blimp prior to the execution of the terror plot, you can see the pain on his face as the Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the stadium.

Rounding out this trio is Robert Shaw as the total mad lad Major David Kabakov – an Israeli counter-terrorist agent and all-round unethical badass. A Dirty Harry type who play by the FBI’s rules (“In your own operational circle in Israel, I understand behind your own back they call you The Final Solution. A man who takes things to their ultimate conclusion and beyond ”). At the beginning of Black Sunday, Kabakov had the opportunity to kill Dahlia but allows her to live. Why doesn’t he kill Dahlia when he had the chance just 15 minutes into the movie? Well aside from the fact that the movie would have ended, Kabakov comes to regret this action and reject the notion of seeing both sides of the question (“The trouble is, Dave, you’ve come to see both sides of the question”). Also notice that he has a concentration camp tattoo on his arm which can be seen as he sits in the hospital bed – Kabakov being a Holocaust survivor goes unmentioned throughout the film.

The Long Beach boat chase and the Miami chase sequence are an appetizer to what comes later (despite some dubious sped up shots during the boat chase). Once the film reaches its final act on the Super Bowl date of January 9th, the final 40 minutes of Black Sunday is some of the most exhilarating action I’ve ever seen in a movie. Featuring chases on foot, car and then by helicopter, the phrase “Edge of your seat” doesn’t do it justice. The film’s advertising including the poser and the trailer (which is classic trailer fashion summarizes the entire plot of the film) focuses on the end of the film as the blimp reaches the audience at the football stadium, leaving the viewer to wonder how we get to that point and what happens next? The film never actually outlines the planned terror plot until we actually see it in action.

So how did the studio receive permission from Good Year to use their blimps and logo in the film? Director John Frankenheimer had already established good relationship with Good Year head Robert Lane as a result of working with the company in Frankenheimer’s previous film Grand Prix (1966). Lane granted Frankenheimer use of Goodyear’s blimps on four conditions: the film had to make clear that the villainous pilot did not work directly for Goodyear, but for a contractor; the final explosion could not come out of the word Goodyear on the blimp’s side as well as the blimp itself not being part of any violence, for example, nobody was to be churned up in its propellers. Lastly, the Good Year logo could not appear on the film’s poster or on any other such marketing materials, hence why the poster and home video releases the blimp simply has the words “Super Bowl” imprinted on its side.

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The grand spectacle of a finale during the Super Bowl X on January 18th, 1976 at the Miami Orange Bowl with the production returning to the same location film additional scenes on January 29th (I wonder how people present reacted to seeing Robert Shaw running about like a madman?). You get a real incoming sense of dread as the large crowds congregate and people are having a good time amongst the appearance of NFL players, coaches, sports announcers and CBS news crews.  Likewise, the President who appears at the Super Bowl in two brief shots resembles then POTUS Jimmy Carter. Carter was sworn into office on January 20th 1977, which means the earliest date if the movie’s timeline would be late 1977 to early 1978 at the earliest (the film indicates it takes place after January 1974). If the film takes place during the 1977 Superbowl then the President should resemble Gerald Ford during his last days in office but it’s only politics geeks like myself who get caught up over this sort of thing.

The score by John Williams is not one of his standout works as there’s no incentive to listen to it after watching the film, although it does succeed in creating suspense and you can hear shades of Star Wars from time to time. Likewise, the editing holds onto certain shots for just long enough not to notice imperfections in the special effects. My only minor criticism would be the very cheesy explosion shot once the blimp finally explodes.

Watching Black Sunday for the first time I was legitimately wondering if the blimp and its attached weapon would cause mass death and destruction and if Kabakov would live or will we get a Hollywood ending in which the day is saved – in the end, we get a bit of both. It’s clear some people are injured and killed once the blimp reaches the stadium but Kabakov being the chad he is, gets that thing away from the crowd and to a safe distance which it explodes, in a manner in which I can’t help but notice parallels the climax of The Dark Knight Rises. Some films once they end leave you that exhilarated, you’re dying to just tell someone about it – Black Sunday is one such film.

The Conversation (1974)

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I Always Feel Like, Somebody’s Watching Me 

The Conversation revolves around just that, a conversation between a man and a woman which is secretly recorded in San Francisco’s Union Square by Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) and his team as a paid job for a private interest. Watching The Conversation decades after the fact, it’s surprising to see that such long-range microphones which can record conversations from afar and even in crowded places existed, let alone were commercially available in 1974, while it’s also of great interest to watch the process depicted in the film of editing together the audio from different sources without the aid of a computer screen. It goes without saying that in a post 9/11, post Edward Snowden world, The Conversation is more scarily relevant than ever.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is the personification of a paranoid man in one of the most effective portrays of a crisis of conscience in film. If you’re in the business of spying on people, it’s difficult to believe people are not spying on you, even to the point that the man can’t even bear one of his neighbours delivering him a present on his birthday. Unlike an Edward Snowden, Harry Caul does not work for the government but the movie hints that he has been hired by them before. Harry’s assistant Stan (John Cazale) even speculates the tapes Harry is editing could be for the Justice Department or the Internal Revenue. However, the most “out there” moment in the film comes when Harry’s associate Bernie (Allen Garfield) states:  “Twelve years ago, I recorded every phone call made by the presidential nominee of a major political party…I’m not saying I elected the President of the United States, but you can draw your own conclusions.” Francis Ford Coppola had been writing The Conversation since the late 1960’s however it’s not determined whether the Watergate scandal had any influence on the film’s development, but you can draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps the most unsettling section in The Conversation is the surveillance convention – a convention where the subterranean world of wiretappers come together to showcase their Orwellian recording technology with the pomp and flair of any business expo. As Martin Stett (a certain young Harrison Ford) sinisterly sums it up, “It’s a convention of wiretappers, ah excuse me, surveillance and security technicians”.

Ah yes, let’s talk about the young Harrison Ford in the supporting role of Martin Stett. Perhaps I may be biased being a huge Harrison Ford fan but he leaves a huge impression in this small but significant part in which he does have a surprising amount of screen time for this early stage in his career. According to Coppola on the director’s commentary track, the character was Ford’s own creation. Originally no more than a cameo, the character’s role was expanded as much as possible when Ford fleshed it out, turning the character into an implied homosexual with his campy checkered tie and sweater, in an implied relationship with the company director played by Robert Duvall. Martin Stett is like a predecessor to the 1980’s yuppie and is one scary looking dude when he lingers in the background – even his voice over the phone is unsettling. I’m unable to discover whether or not more footage of Ford ended up on the cutting room floor. However included on the Blu-ray release of The Conversation is an early screen test from 1972 in which a young and dashing Ford plays the role of Mark, which a part which would eventually be portrayed by Frederic Forrest.

Being a film about sound itself, The Conversation couldn’t be a more ideal match for the editing and sound design talents of the great Walter Murch. Like his work in Apocalypse Now, the sound effects are as memorable as the music, particularly that audio distortion noise that repeats during the film’s titular conversation. Likewise, the eerie, ragtime-esque music score courtesy of David Shire shows what you can do with just a piano – the ideal accompaniment to the gritty 70’s look amongst the film’s oppressive yet striking architecture and a slightly drab-looking winter San Francisco (The Conversation is one of those film’s set during Christmas which has no bearing on the holiday). Even the camera acts as an eavesdropper with the film’s use of voyeuristic shots.

“We know that you know, Mr. Caul. For your own sake, don’t get involved any further. We’ll be listening to you.”

The Electric Horseman (1979)

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Now I’ll Choose Your Outfit. Robert Redford in Electric Horseman

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Electric Horseman is a very old fashioned movie for the 1970s; Its a return to the type of movie made during Hollywood’s more innocent days and could have easily been a vehicle for an actor like Gary Cooper. There’s something about the movie that’s just very wholesome to it from the absence of sex, bad language and the innocent nature from the “that would never happen in real life” plot which hits all the emotional beats. A movie in which you’re rooting for a horse is going to have something inherently innocent about it. Even the opening shot of a running horse is very similar to the opening shot of Sydney Pollack’s earlier film They Shoot Horses Don’t They but they are, tonally, completely different.

The opening montage catalogues the story of rodeo star Sonny Steele (Robert Redford); a rise and fall story which echoes Walter Matthau’s final words in A Face in the Crowd. Sonny, a once legitimate figure is now nothing more than a mascot for a product he doesn’t even use. He is trapped in a world of corporate superficiality; no surprise then that the movie is set in Las Vegas of all places. Even the villains of The Electric Horseman are two dimensional, slimy businessmen who don’t have an ounce of empathy. They are about as cliché as it gets but in an enjoyable love-to-hate way.

Sonny’s horse Rising Star is a metaphor for Sonny himself; the horse’s story is essentially Sonny’s. When he talks about what the horse has been through and its desire to be free, he is talking about himself – A former champion who is leading a pampered life and has become no more than a corporate icon. It’s clear that Sonny has no sex or family, as evident from his recent divorcee just like how Rising Star has been sedated by drugs. Sonny is left with no choice but to try and break free from this existence and set Rising Star (and metaphorically himself) free because anything’s better than the living hell he is currently experiencing.

Jane Fonda’s role as Hallie is a throwback to the fast-talking, Hildy Johnson like news reporter. I also have to question if Fonda’s hairstyle and glasses had any inspiration on the look of the titular character in Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie three years later. The scenes between Redford and Fonda alone in the wilderness are reminiscent of classic screwball comedy in the age-old classic “they hate each other but love in love” scenario. Likewise one of my favourite scenes in the film involves Sonny giving passionate monologue to Hallie about the horses’ mistreatment unaware he’s being recorded. Once he thinks the recording has started he has nothing interesting to say (“He’s one of the great animals…in the history…of animals”). A lesson to filmmakers of any stripe really.

I also imagine the inclusion of Dave Grusin’s Disco Magic probably didn’t help the move when it came out in December 1979; six months after the Disco Demolition Night. However, The Electric Horseman is part of Hollywood’s urban cowboy phase the late ’70s and early ’80s. This oxymoronic combination does give the film one of the most unique action sequences I’ve ever seen as Sonny rides his horse against an onslaught of police cars and motorcycles through a small town (I’d like to see this in Grand Theft Auto).

The ending in which Sonny releases Rising Star into the wild is ridiculous. How long would a champion racehorse survive in the wilderness? It would probably die of starvation and loneliness and certainly not be immediately accepted by a wild herd. But at the end of the day, it still strikes an emotional heartbeat.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise, the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top-secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman, it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly, however, Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at times. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat-up face to boot. As one of the characters in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfill his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co-star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that, there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are a lot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one-liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkably well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However, we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film, there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have a purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

What’s Up Doc? (1972)

You’re the Top 70’s Comedy!

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Director Peter Bogdanovich knows his classic Hollywood with his films being a mixture of new Hollywood meets old Hollywood. What’s Up Doc shows it was still possible to make a screwball comedy even in a contemporary 70’s setting with actors nowhere near as glamorous or good looking as the stars of the golden age. Regardless, the energy, the chemistry and the feeling of classic screwball comedy is present in this Bringing Up Baby inspired farce. Like in Bringing Up Baby a stuffy gentleman is harassed by a woman who has a defiance against the natural order of things and simply won’t get out of his life despite his best efforts. Plus I would love to see someone create a diagram explaining the journeys of the four plaid suitcases featured in the movie.

What’s Up Doc was the first film I saw Barbra Streisand in and this is possibly the shallowest thing I’ll ever say in a review but for the longest time, I avoided watching any film of hers because of how unattractive she looks. Yet when watching her I was pleased to discover she has enough on-screen charisma and likeability that when watching her in action I’m not bothered by that, how do I put it nicely, not so attractive facial features of hers.

Streisand and Ryan O’Neal manage to cross the fine line that they remind you of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby but they aren’t imitating them as they bring their own something to the roles. Streisand as Judy Maxwell is the one member of the cast who can talk at the machine gun rate of classic screwball actors plus something about her personality really projects a Carole Lombard dynamic. Ryan O’Neal as the musicologist Howard Bannister, on the other hand, is far nerdier and emasculated than Cary Grant ever was in Bringing Up Baby. The terms he throws around such as Pre-Palaeozoic Tambulu rocks are all legit terms unlike the fictional “intercostal clavicle” from Bringing Up Baby. Likewise, the time period allows for more racy content, I don’t think 1930’s censors would have allowed for a shirtless Cary Grant wearing a bow tie.

Close to stealing the show however among the cast of live-action cartoon characters is Madeline Kahn as the comedic greatness that is Eunice Burns. As Bogdanovich himself states, Kahn was someone who was funny without being aware of it. Her comic voice can make even the most mundane of lines amusing not to mention does there exist a more comically drab name than Eunice? Above all has there ever existed any romantic attraction between Eunice and her fiancée Howard? What if anything do these two see in each other? The scene however which makes me laugh the most is the sequence in which Howard must hide Judy in his hotel room from an always angry Eunice which leads to the eventual destruction of the hotel room. It’s the most classic, straightforward, slapstick 101 set up and I don’t think I’ve seen it executed as perfectly as it is here.

Few other films take more advantage of their location than San Francisco in What’s Up Doc? It’s not hard to see why it’s a filmmaking favourite as seen in films such as Vertigo or Bullet. The filmmakers definitely enunciate those San Francisco hills with characters struggling to get up them as well as taking full advantage of the city to deliver one of the greatest car chases in film history. The most important requisite for a great car chase or action sequence in general which most modern films don’t understand is that it’s largely about feeling the weight and physicality on screen along with every beautiful sound effect of car tyres screeching and engines revving (here you can actually see the damage caused to public steps in San Francisco). Everything you see on screen is real, making it all the more thrilling knowing that stuntmen are in actual danger. On top of being an edge of your seat spectacle, I rank it the second funniest action sequence ever committed to film (the final car chase in The Blues Brothers still ranks supreme for me). It has the cartoon clichés you would expect brought into live action including men carrying a glass plane across a road as well as the chases going through a Chinatown parade. The chase even goes through Lombard Street, the so-called most crooked street in the world, and seeing multiple cars drive through it in pursuit of each other is a very humorous sight.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

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Young Holmes

I’m not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, so usually, Holmes films appeal to me if they do something unique with the formula. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is not only a comedy which spoofs with reverence its source material but is also a straight-up action/adventure swashbuckler; a vehicle for writer, director and star Gene Wilder to show off a full range of talents including comedy, singing and fencing.

What prevents me from considering Holmes’ Smarter Brother from being a masterpiece is that the movie is not consistently funny. The first third of film had me laughing a lot, particularly the scene in which Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are introduced to each other had me laughing a lot with their kangaroo hoping madness (plus that fencing machine is one of the most amusing props ever); after that, I only laughed seldomly. Most of the jokes after the first third are only chuckle-worthy but at least avoid being embarrassing.

Even with the depleting laughs, there is enough for the film to keep it afloat. Firstly that the movie works on its own as an action/adventure film, full of interesting characters as well as a heavenly chemistry between the trio of heroes. I was still able to care what was going on even with the largely incomprehensible plot. Likewise, despite being as neurotic as he is, Gene Wilder does make for a convincing romantic hero – an intriguing, contradictory combo. Holmes’ Smarter Brother was one of Wilder’s directing ventures and he definitely has an eye for detail with the film’s handsome and lush production values – another aspect which helps elevate the film above its comic shortcomings.

The film also hosts some exciting swashbuckling action scenes in which Wilder gets to show off his skills as a swordsman. The final duel between Holmes and Moriarty is a real treat, taking place in a costume and props storage room of a theatre; it’s full of clever and inventive uses of the surroundings. It reminds me of the scene in The Lady Vanishes in which the two protagonists inspect the cargo bay of the train.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Bother misses the mark of being a comedy masterpiece but is still a fun time.

Executive Action (1973)

That’s What They Want You To Think!

Executive Action was released 10 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and thus is a film by those who remember the day and its aftermath so vividly. Executive Action blends fiction and historical fact into creating one possible scenario to who was responsible for the assassination of JFK, but one which the movie makes feel convincing. The film is a great companion piece to Oliver Stone’s JFK; Stone has stated Executive Action was a basis on inspiration for JFK and it’s not hard to see aspects of JFK within Executive Action. Like in JFK, there is much intercutting of archive footage and black & white flashbacks, while the military like score by Randy Edelman feels reminiscent of John William’s score to JFK.

Much of the film is comprised of engrossing documentary like discussions and presentations, making it like an adaptation of a stage play. Those behind the assassination in Executive Action are a small group of businessmen, political figures and former US Intelligence personnel. They spend much of the movie alone in a mansion and come off as people who are out of touch with common society, nor are they keen on civil rights or minorities. They’re like a secret society and are interested in their own agenda – an elite who believe it’s their duty to pull off an action such as assassinating individuals to preserve their interests; in fact it’s even stated this isn’t the first time any of them have taken part in an assassination; these are businessmen controlling the world. Will Geer plays a stereotypical looking southern businessman who looks a bit like Colonel Sanders, while Burt Lancaster’s menacing performance reminds me of his role of the evil business mogul J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. These are cold-blooded, emotionless men and the entire film is deliberately acted in low key performances. Whereas JFK is a film driven by emotion, Executive Action is the opposite in this respect.

The film does an effective job at recreating 1963 with the fashions and cars on show and despite the low budget, there are aerial shots of Dealey Plaza with the appropriate cars on the road and a recreation the billboard sign on top of the book depository as it looked in 1963. My only downside to Executive Action is the film’s inconsistent pacing. The middle portion of the film drags as the story becomes less eventful, but the suspense builds up once the day of the assassination has arrived.

Executive Action was made during a period when paranoia/conspiracy thrillers where at their height and right during the Watergate scandal; yet has been swept under the rug of history as it is the type of film which would be easily dismissed by critics for being speculative and other such dirty words. Thus there is a taboo like joy which comes from watching a provocative, somewhat trashy film like this.

I also recommend watching the vintage featurette on the Executive Action DVD. During it the film’s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo states he didn’t believe in any conspiracy theories until he read the Warren Report and a dozen books on the subject and became convinced the president had been killed by bullets from two different angles. Likewise, Burt Lancaster tells of how he became increasingly convinced of a probable conspiracy when doing his research. It goes to show how easy it is to be swayed into believing the JFK conspiracy.

There Was a Crooked Man… (1970)

It’s a Dog Eat Dog World

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

If more westerns were like The Was a Crooked Man I could consider myself a bigger fan of the genre. The opening scene in which a black maid who fakes the mammy act sets the stage for a film which defies convention. To date I’ve never seen another western like it; it’s not like a John Ford western or a Howard Hawks western, this is a Joseph L. Mankiewicz western; the first and only Mankiewicz western. I also love that theme song and am happy to hear it again and again in instrumental form throughout the film.

Mankiewicz was a master of handling dialogue and thus there is such a snappy pace to the whole film. “Nothing like fried chicken while it’s still hot and crispy” may be my favourite line Kirk Douglas has ever uttered in a film. The film is full of characters whom each get their own unique stories. The two homosexual lovers and comic buffoons played by Hume Cronyn and John Randolph have the most interesting character arc with an outcome which is the only time in the film someone isn’t totally out for themselves. The large-scale prison set on the other hand captures the mundanity of prison life with the film gradually building up to the impending escape, ranking There Was a Crooked Man among the great prison escape movies.

There Was a Crooked Man is a movie which combines old Hollywood mixed with new Hollywood with its traditional western setting and it’s dosing of cynicism. The cast features stars both veteran actors and younger stars and a script by David Newman and Robert Benton of Bonnie & Clyde fame. Even the one moral character in the film ends up turning bad. Henry Fonda plays the moral role he was known for throughout his career right up until the very end of the picture, leaving me with a big smile on my face. The movie is very cynical but it’s that kind of wonderful cynicism that makes you feel happy, and not feeling down. Although I would call There Was a Crooked Man a funny movie, it is not the kind of film in which I find myself laughing but rather laughing inside to myself.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However, his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo, he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However, on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However, The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels, Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.

Rocky II (1979)

Rocky II: Electric Boogaloo

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Rocky II picks right off where the first movie ended and with the characters are already established, we can get right into the story. Stallone writes and directs this time, and who knows his own creation better than him?

Rocky II has a much higher budget than the first film and thus doesn’t have the guerrilla filmmaking tactics of the first so while it loses something in that regard it’s still no less a beauty of a film. They can even afford to have a huge crowd of kids following him during the training montage and possibly the cheesiest moment in any Rocky movie. We now get two montages instead of one and the series obsession with them would grow from here. The final fight benefits the most from the higher budget. We actually get to see a large crowd of spectators instead of relying on stock footage and camera angels disguising the lack of extras; while the use of slow-motion captures the pain and barbaric nature of fighting in glorious detail. When Rocky and Apollo both fall to the ground at the end of the fight, the suspense is crazy! The final shot of Rocky’s beat up face as he slurs in classic Stallone fashion is so barbaric; a perfect shot to end the movie on.

In Rocky II we get to see what Rocky does now that he has lots of money for the first time in his life and you really get a sense of the character’s new found happiness. However, he becomes blinded by this happiness and it goes to his head such as when he buys a house without even checking the upstairs. Rocky struggles with his new found fame and can’t even film a simple commercial. Just like how the public turn their back on Rocky, the public turned their back on Stallone after his two follow up films to Rocky bombed; Paradise Alley and F.I.S.T. Like how Stallone had to do a sequel to Rocky in order to get by, Rocky has to fight Apollo again to get by and prove that he is not a fluke or a one hit wonder. Apollo’s trainer Duke also has a bigger role here and would continue to be more prevalent in Rocky III and IV; I love this guy and his intense words of inspiration.

Rocky II is easily the funniest movie in the series, from his poor driving skills to his mispronunciation of words when trying to film a commercial (“Smeel mainly”) but my favourite moment is when he tries to a catch a chicken as part of his training (“I feel like a Kentucky Fired Idiot”). I also find it funny the scene in which Apollo is being consumed by hate mail telling him to kill himself; it’s a good thing for him the web doesn’t yet exist. In terms of more twisted humour, Rocky takes Adrian to the zoo and even proposes to her there, because you know, retards like the zoo.

Rocky II was the first film in the series to use synthesizers in its score and the music feels very late 70’s and at times disco inspired (listen to the vocal version of All of My Life, it’s beautiful). Bill Conti’s ‘Redemption’ is by far the best piece of original music in the movie; it makes me want to climb a mountain.
Just a side note: In regards to the Rocky DVDs, only the first movie gets the special edition treatment and the rest are just bare bones releases. I know the first is considered the best but that doesn’t mean there’s no merit to the sequels that they’re just tossed aside on the home video releases.

Rocky II offers everything I could ask for in a sequel, a movie which stays true to the original but offers new elements along the way. It advances the story and adds an extra layer of depth to already complex characters. In 1979 the New Hollywood movement was coming to an end and the age of the blockbuster had begun. In 1976 Rocky lost the final fight but keeping with the newfound optimism in Hollywood movies, in 1979 Rocky wins the fight (although timeline wise its late 1976).