Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
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Selection from Cites & Insights 12, Number 1: January-February 2012


Offtopic Perspective

50 Movie Box Office Gold, Part 1

Let’s see. All color. Some dates in the 1970s and 1980s, some earlier. Mostly 84 to 94 minutes (some longer). Big stars in every movie. Thirteen discs to hold 50 movies, because there aren’t six short subjects. This can only mean…TV Movies, at least most of them, or movies with no significant commercial presence in the U.S.

I reviewed another set of mostly TV movies in “50 Movie All-Stars Collection,” and a generally good set it was, starting with the first-rate duo Divorce Hers and Divorce His. This set doesn’t get off to quite such an auspicious start, but we shall see. Why am I interleaving a third megapack, along with “Comedy Kings” and the everlasting Mystery Collection? For the worst of all possible reasons: Sometimes I just want to watch a color old movie, and there are precious few of those in the other collections.

As usual, if the actual run time is more than a minute different from the run time as it appears on IMDB, I give the actual run time, as my player shows it (not as it’s sometimes-inaccurately given on the sleeve) in [brackets]. And as usual, my ratings are given as the amount I think it would be plausible to pay for this movie, as offered here, as part of a single multi-flick disc, in a range of $0 to $2.50 (but almost never over $2).

Disc 1

Guns of the Revolution (aka Rain for a Dusty Summer), 1971, b&w. Arthur Lubin (dir.), Ernest Borgnine, Humberto Almazán, Sancho Gracia, Aldo Sambrell. 1:32.

I’m not sure what to say about this one, with Ernest Borgnine as the general in charge of getting rid of all the priests in 1917-era Mexico—and one would-be priest, very much a jokester, who winds up defying the general and revealing the lasting Catholicism of the people. Supposedly based on a true story, this movie seems unclear as to its purpose and mood, although it’s most assuredly pro-Catholic. Borgnine is, well, peculiar in the role of the dictatorial general insistent on freeing the people from the tyranny of religion. The rest of the cast is adequate, but I found the writing flat and the direction scattered. The picture’s fine. This is supposedly a theatrical release, but has all the depth and attitude of a TV movie. I come up with $1.25.

High Risk, 1981, color. Stewart Raffill (dir.), James Brolin, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn, Arnest Borgnine, Bruce Davison, Cleavon Little, Chuck Vennera. 1:34 [1:32]

A better title might be Four Idiot Gringo Thieves. I guess it’s a caper movie of sorts, one in which we’re apparently supposed to identify with four young men who decide to rip off a drug warlord in South America for a million or so. Hey: Four guys, most of whom have never handled a weapon, armed with various overpowered stuff from a friendly neighborhood armaments-out-of-a-truck dealer (Ernest Borgnine), flying on a chartered drug plane, parachuting in to open a safe (for which the leader thinks they have the combination) in a heavily-guarded estate, expecting to just go in, do it, and leave…oh, and they’ll do it during siesta, because everybody will be asleep.

What could possibly go wrong?

Great cast, with James Coburn as the drug lord with $5 million (and a lot of drugs) in his safe, Anthony Quinn as the head of a scraggly bunch of former revolutionaries who are now just bandits, James Brolin as the head of the idiot gang who sold his house and belongings to pay for the weapons and arrangements, Lindsay Wagner as—it’s hard to say …and more.

Plausibility: Zero. Likability of the gang members: For me, not a lot more than zero. This was mostly people who felt justified in ripping off somebody else because, I dunno, they’re underemployed, at war with a high-living suave drug lord and a bunch of aging revolutionaries. Decently filmed, good print, but…well, I just didn’t get it. Apparently, this was also a real feature, not a TV movie, released in nine countries with as many titles. IMDB calls it a comedy as well as an action film; I really don’t get that. Charitably, $1.00.

The Cop in Blue Jeans (orig. Squadra antiscippo), 1976, color. Bruno Corbucci (dir.), Tomas Milian, Jack Palance, Maria Rosaria Omaggio, Guido Mannari. 1:35 [1:32]

There’s this Italian cop (or “special agent”) who dresses like a bum and rides a scooter that can keep up with any car and can be driven up several flights of stairs without difficulty. He’s out to reduce the plague of purse-snatching and other crime—by going after the fences, which he does in an odd way. (And if you believe that, given a full busload of Japanese tourists, 100% of them would spend two minutes taking pictures of someone mooning them from across the street, with nobody paying attention to the guys putting all of their luggage in a van and driving away…well, then you can believe everything else in this movie.)

Add to that a misstep by the king of the snatchers, the Baron, whose own scooter team manages to snatch a briefcase from an American coming out of a hotel—a briefcase holding $5 million in thousand dollar bills. Without giving away the plot climax, I’ll mention the bizarro ending—in which the cop shows just what a good guy he is by, well, snatching somebody’s briefcase while riding a scooter—while violating airport security in a fairly outrageous manner. Incidentally, the IMDB plot summary is as wrong as the sleeve summary.

It’s all high-action nonsense, really badly dubbed (except for Jack Palance, the American) and with dialogue I’m pretty certain doesn’t match the original—and badly out of focus to boot. Palance is there for maybe 15 minutes and pretty clearly in it for the bucks and the vacation. I’m being very charitable to give this Eurocrap $0.75.

Act of Love, 1980, color. Jud Taylor (dir.), Ron Howard, Robert Foxworth, Mickey Rourke, David Spielberg, Mary Kay Place. 1:44 [1:28]

Fratricide, euthanasia and Ron Howard (acting, not directing), with Robert Foxworth as a wealthy lawyer. How can you beat that? Well, a clear picture that wasn’t red-shifted through much of it (Howard and others aren’t so much rednecks, country accents aside, as red-faced) would help. This one is a TV movie.

The setup: Howard is the younger brother who loves his older (married) brother (Rourke), and both live with their mother—after their father died the previous winter. One day, Howard goes off to work while the older brother takes a brand-new motorcycle and starts driving it around the farm like a madman…including the uncleared five acres the two sons were planning to start clearing. Motorcycle. Uncleared acreage. Accident.

When the older brother realizes he’s probably going to be paralyzed from the neck down, he asks his younger brother to swear to kill him. Which Howard does—by shooting him in the head with a half-loaded buckshot cartridge in a sawed-off shotgun. The rest of the movie is about the trial. I won’t give away the ending.

Great cast, reasonably well acted. The poor quality of the print—soft and reddish—hurts quite a bit. I wind up with $1.00.

Disc 2

Shaker Run, 1986, color. Bruce Morrison (dir.), Cliff Robertson, Leif Garrett, Lisa Harrow, Shane Briant, Peter Rowell, Peter Hayden. 1:31 [1:29]

A research scientist whose project has accidentally developed a lethal bioweapon (it suppresses the immune system) finds that it’s about to be turned over to the military—so to save mankind from that awful fate, she and her lover (also on the project) decide to steal the stuff and deliver it to…the CIA? Really? So that sterling institution, only interested in the good of humanity, can see to it that an antidote is developed. Oh, and the evil country whose military she’s trying to avoid: New Zealand.

Yep. That’s what we have: the New Zealand military vs. the CIA—except that it’s mostly stunt car driving with Cliff Robertson as a former race car driver turned stunt-car driver, who takes on the delivery job without knowing what he’s transporting (but he’s bad broke and she’s offering $3,000). Garrett plays Robertson’s mechanic (and son of the crew chief Robertson’s character accidentally killed at Daytona). The military presence includes a sinister head and an associate who’s pure assassin. All filmed on location and with decent production values, on roads covering a good portion of New Zealand’s South Island. Lots of scenery. Lots of shooting, explosions, cars going over cliffs and mostly lots of stunt car driving. The print’s pretty decent for VHS quality, and the movie moves right along. Even if…the CIA? Really? (When Robertson, as an American stunt driver, hears what she’s doing, he comments “Lady, you are really naïve.” Ya’ think?) I have no idea how Mill Creek Entertainment could get rights to a 1986 color movie cheap enough to include in a megapack, but there you go. All in all, a minor effort worth $1.25.

Against All Hope, 1982, color. Edward T. McDougal (dir.), Michael Madsen, Maureen McCarthy, Cecil Moe. 1:29.

Awful, awful, awful: A badly-done film that’s nothing more than a 90-minute sermon for one narrow brand of Christianity as being the five-second cure (and the only cure) for whatever ails you.

It’s all about a falling-down drunk and how he got that way, told in flashbacks as he’s sitting in a 4a.m. chat with a minister he’d never met, trying to decide whether to kill himself. It’s a mildly sad story, but mostly boils down to a man with no apparent self-esteem who lives for his drinks and has somehow stayed married. When he decides he’s in trouble, we get a display of how every other helping profession is worthless. A doctor blows cigarette smoke in his face while telling him there are no medical problems. A neurologist dismisses his issues. A psychiatrist wants to know whether he hates his mother or his father and then refers him to a minister from the Church of Good Times (or something like that), whose only advice is that the couple should come to Wednesday Night Bingo or Friday Night Dances at the church. And, of course, not one of these people asks anything about him being a drunk. No AA suggestions or anything that might actually help.

Add in a barroom scene in which everybody in the bar gathers around him to force him to take a drink after he’s been on the wagon for a couple of months, a diner with a remarkably vicious waitress and even nastier other customer and the fact that not one character in the whole film, including the long-suffering wife and the protagonist, seems to be more than a convenient cliché. Even after the lead is miraculously saved (after a 30-second prayer, he walks out of the minister’s house, says everything suddenly looks beautiful, and of course everything goes great after that), he’s upset because his wife (who’s always been religious, even taught Sunday School for 11 years, but doesn’t much cotton to his particular fundamentalist group) “still isn’t a Christian yet.”

The lead character’s name—Cecil Moe--is also the name of the cowriter and executive producer (who also plays a different role, the minister who saves Moe). It’s really bad propaganda, of a sort that strikes me as wholly useless—I mean, would anyone outside the “you’re all doomed, but if you just Say the Magic Phrase, you’re instantly saved” camp be convinced by anything here? Madsen’s first movie; based on his stellar performance, it’s a miracle he was ever in a second one—but this one must have been seen by, what, 50 people including the cast? (If you read the IMDB reviews, note that the only semi-favorable ones are from those who think the “Christian” message overrides everything else.) I’d give it a flat $0, but as an example of really bad moviemaking that’s also remarkably awful propaganda it’s a weak $0.25.

Kangaroo, 1952, color. Lewis Milestone (dir.), Maureen O’Hara, Peter Lawford, Finlay Currie, Richard Boone, Chips Rafferty. 1:24.

An old guy, Michael McGuire, shows up at a cheap sailor’s rest (six cents a night for bedding and a bunk) drunk and with booze to share—and, as he’s singing and becoming maudlin, Richard Connor (a young Peter Lawford) asks about it and finds that he’s mourning the long-lost son that he put in an orphanage as a child, from whence the son fled. Connor leaves the sailor’s rest, tries to rob gambler John W. Gamble (Richard Boone), winds up robbing the proprietor of the gambling establishment along with Gamble (a robbery during which Gamble shoots the proprietor)…and that’s just the start. (Interesting gambling hall: Most of the action’s betting on whether a person tossing two coins in the air will have two heads or two tails land, with one of each being a non-result.)

The primary plot: McGuire’s got a 10,000-square-mile cattle station in South Australia. The two, after taking him back to his ship (dead drunk), connive to go to the station…with the hope that they can convince him that Connor’s his long-lost son. Turns out he also has a beautiful daughter (Maureen O’Hara), and they’re just trying to hang on given a three-year drought that’s nearly wiped out the nearby town and threatens to wipe out their herds.

Most of the movie’s a combination of Australian scenery, driving cattle, aboriginal rites and a little action here and there. The ending’s not terribly important (indeed, other than a break in the drought, the ending’s not even very clear). It’s fair to say that the long con doesn’t work, partly because Lawford’s conscience gets the better of him.

Fine cast, generally well played, maybe a little heavy on the Australian exotica (supposedly the first Hollywood flick and first Technicolor movie shot entirely in Australia). While the print’s not terrible, it’s not as good as you might want for a movie this heavy on scenery. All in all, though, it’s entertaining enough. If the print was better, this might get more, but I’ll give it $1.25.

A Hazard of Hearts, 1987, color (made for TV). John Hough (dir.), Diana Rigg, Edward Fox, Helena Bonham Carter, Fiona Fullerton, Christopher Plummer, Steward Granger, Neil Dickson, Anna Massey, Marcus Gilbert. 1:30.

Romance-novel fans may recognize that as a Barbara Cartland title, and snobs may say “Oh, please, it’s a cheap romance novel.” Maybe, but it’s well done and a distinct pleasure, some highly implausible plot issues be damned.

The basic plot: A British nobleman (Christopher Plummer) is an inveterate gambler and loses not only his entire fortune but his estate and his daughter’s promised hand in marriage (which brings with it an £80,000 inheritance) to a villainous lord who his daughter detests. Another lord takes on the villain, winning back the estate and daughter…while the nobleman shoots himself. Then, the other lord (an oddly distant sort, but handsome) discovers the youth of the daughter (Helena Bonham Carter, 21 at the time) and decides he can’t possibly wed one so young—and decides to sell the estate and send her to live with his mother at his estate. His mother, played by Diana Rigg, is a proper scoundrel—another inveterate gambler who runs her own gambling operation and also a smuggling franchise, and who regards the girl as an annoyance to be dealt with.

That’s just the start of a hearty plot involving hidden doors, staircases and even apparently dead fathers, subterfuge, betrayal, and eventually both a pistol duel and a swordfight. Virtue triumphs—how could it not? And, frankly, it all works—because the actors are first-rate. Also, this is an unusually good print for a Mill Creek movie, nearly VHS quality: It was a pleasure to watch on the big screen. Yes, the plot’s silly, but the staging and acting are both fine. I’ll give it $1.75.

Disc 3

Catch Me a Spy (orig. To Catch a Spy), 1971, color. Dick Clement (dir.), Kirk Douglas, Marlène Jobert, Trevor Howard, Tom Courtenay, Patrick Mower. 1:34.

It’s a spy movie—or, rather, a spy romantic comedy. Hot young teacher (and daughter of a British Minister who seems to spend most of his time playing with games) is courted by a handsome young import/export businessman and, after three months, marries him. They begin their honeymoon in Bucharest so he can take care of some business…at which point, he’s arrested as a spy and taken to Moscow. Shortly before that, there’s some business with a “waiter” (Kirk Douglas) who tapes something into the lining of one of their two suitcases.

Things progress at a dizzying pace, as the wife tries to fly to Moscow, is drugged by the waiter in the airport, winds up flying to London, and manages to convince the government to trade her husband for a Soviet spy—the only Soviet spy that British intelligence has ever captured, apparently. That goes badly, and we proceed from there. (By now, we know that the husband is actually a double agent—near the end of the film, his ‘captor’ notes that he’s the only Soviet prisoner to gain weight.) There’s lots of plot, a fair amount of silliness, and generally good fun.

Great cast, well played in the light manner that suits the plot, flawed mostly by the soft print and panned-and-scanned version. Not a movie for the ages, but it’s fun and worth $1.50.

There Goes the Bride, 1980, color. Terry Marcel (dir.), Tom Smothers, Phil Silvers, Jim Backus, Broderick Crawford, Martin Balsam, Hermione Badderley, Twiggy. 1:30

Concussions sure are funny! Or at least that’s one way to read this comedy, since the plot turns on four concussions, each of which involves an immediate recovery but a changed view of reality. Tommy Smothers is an ad man always on the verge of a breakdown, whose daughter is getting married the same day he’s supposed to pitch for a new account. He also has some necessary errands to run—like, for example, picking up the groom’s parents from the airport.

As played, the ad man is so incompetent with reality that things would have gone wrong anyway, so bringing in an invisible flapper who’s later his invisible flapper wife just adds to what I guess are supposed to be insanely funny mixups. Maybe you have to be in the right mood. One key plot point: Apparently, in this universe’s version of the late 1970s or 1980, it was shocking for a young woman to have slept with her fiancée before the wedding—clearly, this wasn’t the 1970s I grew up in.

Great cast. I think a better script, livelier acting and better direction might have made more of this—but what the hey, it is a TV movie. Oh, wait—apparently it isn’t: It’s a production that sure feels like a TV movie and was first shown in the UK. Soft picture—even more so during sequences when Twiggy, the invisible flapper, is visible, but there the softness is apparently intentional. Charitably, if you’re really easily amused, $1.00.

Scandal Sheet, 1985 (TV), color. David Lowell Rich (dir.), Burt Lancaster, Lauren Hutton, Pamela Reed, Robert Urich. 1:41 [1:34]

What a cast! Burt Lancaster, Robert Urich, Lauren Hutton, Pamela Reed and others. What a…sad, trashy little movie. It’s about tabloid journalism, big pay, friendship and betrayal—except that it’s never quite clear who’s betraying whom. I couldn’t care about any of the characters. The script’s mediocre, the better-known actors don’t seem to much care, the picture’s a little soft. Even by TV movie standards, this one’s mostly a waste. If there’s a moral, it’s one most celebrities have learned: If you’re going into rehab for alcoholism or drugs, your publicist should announce it openly. The best I can do is $0.75.

The Driver’s Seat (orig. Identikit), 1974, col0r. Giuseppe Patroni Giffi (dir.), Elizabeth Taylor, Andy Warhol. 1:45 [1:41]

How you feel about this Elizabeth Taylor vehicle will depend a lot on how you feel about Elizabeth Taylor (and, I suppose, truly strange Italian filmmaking). If you believe she was a gloriously beautiful woman and great actress at all times, you’ll thrill to this rarity, since she’s front and center in all but maybe 10 minutes of the film. Even then, though, you may go “wha?” from time to time.

The plot: A woman wants to meet the perfect man…to kill her. Along the way, she encounters various people, including several men, virtually all of whom attempt to rape her. (At least one of them has a schtick: He’s on a macrobiotic diet that requires him to have an orgasm a day.) That’s about it. Andy Warhol plays two brief scenes as a wholly disinterested lord, with all the vibrant flair of most Andy Warhol appearances—that is, he kept his eyes open throughout his scenes.

The print in this case was really very good—I’d say better than VHS quality—but there was a tiny disc flaw rendering 90 seconds unwatchable. I’m convinced that I didn’t miss anything that would have made this more than a very strange movie. I think the only people who would sit through this movie are Taylor completists and fans of vague Italian cinema. For them, it’s probably worth at least $1.25.

Disc 4

The Missouri Traveler, 1958, color. Jerry Hopper (dir.), Brandon De Wilde, Lee Marvin, Gary Merrill, Paul Ford, Mary Hosford, Ken Curtis, Cal Tinney, Frank Cady, Will Wright. 1:43.

A charmer all the way through. A 15-year-old orphan (De Wilde) is running away from the orphanage and gets picked up by the biggest landholder in Delphi, Missouri—and, eventually, “adopted” by the whole small community. The landholder/farmer (Lee Marvin) is gruff and rough, and will only stand by agreements if they’re in writing. The other protagonist, the local newspaper editor (Merrill), is much softer. Lots of other characters involved, and at one point I had to remind myself that the lead woman was not Marian Peroo. (The local restaurant owner, who was running a beer parlor until the temperance ladies made the town dry, is also essentially the mayor—and is the same actor [Ford] who was the mayor in The Music Man.)

Not a terribly deep picture, but a charming one. Good cast. Decent print. I’ll give it $1.50.

Rogue Male, 1977, color (TV movie). Clive Donner (dir.), Peter O’Toole, John Standing, Alastair Sim, Harold Pinter. 1:43.

Peter O’Toole is a British aristocrat and author of books about hunting who attempts to assassinate Hitler in 1939—missing and being captured because of a stray quail. (Don’t ask.) The interrogators torture him, including pulling out all his fingernails—then, finding out that he really is related to a high-up in British government, stage an accident to explain his death. An accident that doesn’t actually kill him.

The rest of the movie concerns his flight back to England, his discovery that he’s still being hunted by Gestapo agents and his attempts to survive. It’s slow and gritty (much of it takes place in and about a small hand-dug cave) and with O’Toole, it’s well worth watching. Not great, but worth $1.50.

Agency, 1980, color. George Kaczender (dir.), Robert Mitchum, Lee Majors, Valerie Perrine, Alexandra Stewart. Saul Rubinek, George Touliatos. 1:34.

Robert Mitchum is the new owner of an ad agency, a tad secretive and with little known background in the biz. Lee Majors is the creative head, prone to jogging, getting in late and being, well, Lee Majors. He’s divorced and sometimes dating Valerie Perrine, a doctor. And his buddy Goldstein, a brilliant copywriter, thinks Mitchum’s up to no good.

It’s all about the sure-fire wonders of subliminal advertising and how they can enable any group to take over the world. I’m not sure how much more there is to say about it. It’s lackluster but not terrible (although there are a few bizarre digitization errors and some really crude censorship, as certain words are obviously blanked out). The sleeve calls this “The Agency,” but there’s no pronoun in the flick’s title. A paranoid trifle, worth maybe $1.25.

The Steagle, 1971, color. Paul Sylbert (dir.), Richard Benjamin, Chill Wills, Cloris Leachman, Jean Allison, Suzanne Charney, Ivor Francis. 1:27 [1:30]

Richard Benjamin is a professor in New York who hates to fly and has a typical suburban family: one wife (Cloris Leachman), two kids. Then comes the Cuban Missile Crisis and he goes—well, let’s see, he gives a lecture of complete nonsense language, tells off his dean and starts hopping across the country on first-class airplane flights, making up a new identity each leg, screwing a married colleague at work, the daughter of a former wartime flame in Chicago and anybody who’s convenient elsewhere. We also see a minister turn lecher in Vegas. Benjamin winds up in LA, getting drunk at the Stork Club and thrown out after a strange scene involving Chill Wills as an over-the-hill, drunk, befuddled old Western actor who supposedly thinks he’s Humphrey Bogart—and the two of them wind up shooting live ammo and exploding live grenades at midnight on a studio set.

After which a cop wakes the two and doesn’t run them in—because the Russian ships have just turned around and Kennedy’s saved the day. Exit Benjamin, back across country, by train, across from a loudmouth Texan who thinks we shoulda’ bombed Cuba flat.

I found it more annoying than anything else, and as a “comedy” it lacks humor. So the crisis was an excuse to abandon all morality, your family, everything? Really? That’s not quite the way I remember it (I was at UC Berkeley at the time; to the best of my knowledge, we had no professors with Benjamin’s approach to a world crisis.) Maybe if you find Benjamin charming enough you’d like it. For me, meh. But a good print and good cast; I’ll charitably give it $1.

Disc 5

Christabel, 1988, color (TV). Adrian Shergold (dir.), Elizabeth Hurley, Stephen Dillane, Geoffrey Palmer, Ann Bell, Nigel Le Vaillant. 2:27.

When I look at the running time (nearly 2.5 hours), the date (1988) and the cast (Elizabeth Hurley), I immediately think, “Why is this on a Mill Creek Entertainment set?” The answer—or a possible answer—comes at the end of the movie.

Christabel is an upper-class British woman who marries a German lawyer she met a Cambridge, to the considerable dismay of her father. Did I mention that this starts in 1934? The two move to Germany, start a family, and by 1938—well, you probably know what was happening in the late 1930s in Germany. At her husband’s request, she moves back to England for a while, but that doesn’t stick. A fair amount of middling intrigue later, it’s mid-1944—and he’s been arrested after a plot to kill Hitler fails. She’s off in the Black Forest (where he sent her after the bombing began, although she came back to Berlin at least once)—but she sets out to find him and see what she can do for him. It’s gritty, includes some interesting (and, I suspect, plausible) details about ordinary people in Berlin coping with the situation (they learn to count to eight for the bombs in each U.S. heavy bomber during nighttime raids), and—well, I guess it ends happily.

It’s a little slow, and maybe that’s intentional. It’s also quite good, with some remarkably good scenes and Hurley doing subtle, generally deglamorized work. If you don’t mind a fundamentally serious movie, you’ll probably like this. The print is usually better than usual: Somewhere between VHS and DVD quality—but about 10% of the time, something happens and it’s got jaggies and vertical jitters. All in all, though, the problems don’t distract from a very good picture.

The answer? It’s a BBC television production, and since it’s not a series, BBC probably didn’t think they could gouge sell pricey DVDs successfully in the U.S. (Reading IMDB, I see that this is apparently based on a true story.) This one’s worth $1.75.

Ginger in the Morning, 1974, color. Gordon Wiles (dir.), Monte Markham, Susan Oliver, Mark Miller, Sissy Spacek, Slim Pickens, David Doyle. 1:30 [1:33]

This begins with two entirely different scenes. In one, a young woman—OK, let’s say it, a hippie chick (Sissy Spacek)—is getting out of a truck, thanking the driver, and starting to thumb her way along the highway again, suitcase and guitar case in hand. In the other, a vaguely worried man (Monte Markham) is deplaning and being pestered by someone he must have been seated next to on the plane, a middle-aged dirty old man (David Doyle) telling him he should go out and get laid a lot (he’s been divorced for a couple of months), that he should say “motel” right away when picking up a woman so he knows where he stands… And then they come together, as he (Markham, not Doyle—thankfully, we never see Doyle again) passes her on the highway, turns around, gets a flat tire in the process, and they wind up in the car together.

After this “meet cute,” we have a three-day story (starting on December 30) that winds up with an odd sort of Happily Ever After ending and involves the worried man, the young woman, the man’s rowdy friend who’s in Mexico but flies back to see him, the rowdy friend’s ex-wife who also happens to be in town…and, for good measure, Slim Pickens as the sheriff of Santa Fe (where this is all set).

I want to like this movie more than I do. Unfortunately, much of it is drunken carousing, and neither of the primary characters seem concerned that they’re apparently both badly-functioning alcoholics. That, and the somewhat vapid characterization by Spacek, diminish an otherwise interesting little film. (OK, so Spacek was probably 22 at the time this was filmed, and had to work with a poor script. She apparently wrote her own songs; they’re actually pretty good.) Good print. This has the feel of a TV movie, but apparently it wasn’t. All told, I’ll give it $1.25.

The River Niger, 1976, color. Krishna Shah (dir.), Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett Jr., Glynn Turman, Jonelle Allen, Roger E. Mosely. 1:45.

A superb cast, a generally very good print (except that the music, written & performed by WAR, is sometimes wavering as though there were soundtrack problems), a Tony Award-winning play opened out into a movie.

I’m not sure how much more to say. I’m probably not the natural audience. The movie, set in an LA ghetto (presumably Watts), features James Earl Jones as an alcoholic house-painter/poet trying to keep his family together, Cicely Tyson as his wife, stricken with cancer, Louis Gossett Jr. as the best friend and local doctor—and a remarkable crowd of other actors. It’s a movie of its time, and very well done. Summarizing the actual plot would be of no particular use.

I don’t quite understand how this movie could be in this set, but that’s a common theme here. I’ll give it $2.

Disc 6

Callie & Son, 1981 (TV), color. Waris Hussein (dir.), Lindsay Wagner, Jameson Parker, Dabney Coleman, Joy Garrett, Michelle Pfeiffer, Andrew Prine, James Sloyan. 2:22.

The stirring tale of a mother who loved her son a little too much… Well, not incest, but that’s the key to this tearjerker that feels like (and is) a TV movie, but a very long one. Lindsay Wagner is Callie, who in the opening scenes is in a hospital bed after Being Wronged…and being pressured into giving up her baby for adoption without ever holding him (for $2,000 plus a couple hundred in prenatal expenses). She leaves Chillicothe and moves to Dallas, where she moves into an absurdly restrictive (and probably historically accurate for the 1950s) rooming house and takes a job as a waitress. Since she’s gorgeous and pleasant, she does well…including good tips from the wealthy newspaper editor (Dabney Coleman, in a wholly positive role) who never says much and always just has coffee. In a little side plot, she hires a sleazy PI to find her son—and he winds up decamping entirely (leaving an empty office) after taking another $200 from her.

Moving forward a bit, she learns to be a court stenographer. We then see her doing the stenography for a deposition involving—guess who? He suggests coffee, they talk, he realizes she’s the former waitress, and a little while later she’s the Cinderella who’s married the prince (and is received badly by the local elite). Further down the line, she becomes pregnant, then miscarries and can’t bear children; eventually, she reveals the existence of her son. In the most implausible bit (in my opinion) of the flick, the editor manages not only to find the son but to have him returned to his mother, apparently without difficulty. (What? The adoptive parents didn’t really want him?)

And she turns into SmotherMom. She wants her son to take over as editor. The editor had planned to sell the paper, move to his ranch and run a few head of cattle, but she talks him out of it—and when, shortly after the JFK assassination, he’s shot dead in the newsroom along with two other newspaper staffers, she takes over as editor (after rejecting her husband’s drawn-up but not yet signed plan to make the paper employee-owned). She tries to get her son, now a pot-smoking guitar-playing slacker (Jameson Parker), to get involved in the paper; it doesn’t work.

Third section of the interminable plot: She gets her son involved in politics—but instead of marrying the Suitable Prospect, he elopes with a very young Michelle Pfeiffer (23 at the time, but she plays even younger). A few years later, as he’s planning to move up a rung in office, there’s a big party at the ranch with lots of dove hunting—and SmotherMom winds up shooting and killing Pfeiffer after a struggle (but just a little too late to believe it’s an accident). And a determined local DA gets a grand jury to indict the son for first-degree murder (there was adultery and various other nonsense implied between the not-so-happy couple). The rest of the picture is courtroom drama, remarkably unconvincing, especially when the rotten PI (who SmotherMom had prevented from becoming a judge) lies through his teeth to convict the son and apparently faces neither effective cross-examination nor background checking. The movie almost ends with the son’’s execution—but not quite: She goes back to Chillicothe, adopts a baby boy, and we start all over.

Long description because there’s a lot of plot. It’s not terrible, it’s not great. Really good cast, pretty good print. All in all, I’ll give it a middling $1.50.

Dear Mr. Wonderful, 1982, color. Peter Lilienthal (dir.), Joe Pesci, Karen Ludwig, Frank Vincent, Ed O’Ross, Ivy Ray Browning. 1:56 [1:52].

I’m all in favor of naturally paced movies, but this one is so naturally paced that it seems to fall apart repeatedly. I think the plot goes something like this:

Ruby Dennis (Pesci) owns a bowling alley in New Jersey, where he sings in the lounge and has apparent dreams of being a lounge singer in Chicago or Las Vegas. He also writes the occasional song. He lives with his divorced sister and her son. There’s some stuff involving a frequent dinner guest (?), an older Jewish man who barely speaks but insists on full observance of rites; also some stuff involving the ex-husband, who’s apparently a leech but trying to get back in touch: Dennis won’t even let him in the door (to his sister’s place).

The mob (I guess) wants to take over the bowling alley for a big new development and makes it clear that they’re going to get it one way or another, one favored way being that it burns down overnight and he collects the insurance. Meanwhile, he’s gotten interested in a daughter of someone who’s involved with the mob (I think), seeing that she gets singing lessons and dating her in his own awkward way. There’s a Tony Martin cameo, very much as himself. Oh, and along the line, his sister basically disappears, quitting her job in a garment factory to go work with—what? urban rehabilitators?—and, I guess, moving in with a family of them. The son is a cheap street criminal who presumably means well; he has a gang ripping chains off of people and sells them to another cheap criminal in a boxing gym, getting ripped off himself in the process.

There’s probably more to it. Eventually, Dennis does sell the place, winds up with the girl (I think), the mom moves back in (I guess) and…well, the movie ends. Frankly, if I hadn’t been down with a cold, I would have turned this off half an hour in and done something more exciting, like staring at the wall. But fans of Pesci might enjoy it. According to IMDB, the German version is 1:56 and the U.S. version is 1:40. This version was 1:52—and I’m sure cutting 12 minutes wouldn’t hurt. It’s a German production, which may or may not explain anything. Charitably, $1.

Twisted Obsession (orig. El sueño del mono loco, also The Mad Monkey), 1989, color. Fernando Trueba (dir.), Jeff Goldblum, Miranda Richardson, Anemone, Daniel Ceccaldi, Dexter Fletcher, Liza Walker.  1:43.

There are some oddities with this one. First, it’s in stereo—unusual for movies in these collections. And I do mean stereo, not reprocessed mono: The orchestral score underlying most of it is well-recorded stereo. Second—well, it’s in English, except for a few minutes of dialogue in French with no subtitles, and it was filmed in Spain (Madrid stands in for Paris).

The plot? The very tall and very strange Jeff Goldblum (he always seems to do best with semi-deranged roles) narrates the movie as an entire flashback about a movie he won’t see, that shouldn’t have been made, that he shouldn’t have written. That’s right: He’s a screenwriter, an American in Paris, whose wife leaves him early in the movie for no apparent reason, leaving behind a son whose apparent indifference masks his total need for his mother. None of which has much to do with the plot.

A producer wants him to write a screenplay based on a “treatment” that’s one line handwritten on a sheet of paper—a line, as it turns out, that’s from Peter Pan and used in front matter to the screenwriter’s failed novel. The very young director (whose previous experiences is music videos) who wants to make the movie points this out and hands him an annotated copy of the novel—annotated, we find out, by the very young director’s extremely young sister (16 years old, but a very mature 16), who also seems to make any difficulties in the way of the film go away, apparently by various acts the screenwriter summarizes with the word “whoring.”

The plot? Oh, let’s not forget the screenwriter’s agent, a lovely wheelchair-bound 30-year-old who pretty obviously has a thing for the screenwriter. And who we later find also has some backstory with the director and sister. Nor should we forget the screenwriter’s final development of exactly the screenplay the director wants, which the producer knows to be unbankable unless a major star is on board—and, oddly, the screenwriter knows such a major star.

The plot? I give up. There’s also drugs, death, various forms of love, the seeming absence of any deep human emotions on the part of most everybody involved—and, in the end, it felt like an art film, in the reading of “art film” that keeps them out of the commercial marketplace. To wit, after one hour and 45 minutes that seemed much longer, I had no idea what the outcome was, I didn’t know where things would lead, but…well, but I’d kept watching. For those who might enjoy this sort of thing, this is exactly the sort of thing they’d enjoy, and for them it’s probably worth at least $1.25.

Summing Up

So here we are at the first half—or, really, not quite, since this 50-movie pack lacks very short films and so is spread over 13 discs. The first six discs include the first 22 movies; the “second half” includes 28 over seven discs.

It’s a truly odd set, a combination of TV movies, foreign films that apparently weren’t headed for stateside DVD release, and at least one movie that should never have been in this bargain set. Two attempts to assassinate Hitler  along the way. There’s one absolutely first-rate film, The River Niger, and two very strong contenders, Christabel and A Hazard of Hearts. I count four more good $1.50 flicks, seven at a reasonable $1.25 and five at a mediocre-but-passable $1, for a total of $25.25. Ah, but as I look now, the prices of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50-packs have firmed up a lot—I see $44.49 at Amazon, about three times what I would have expected. At that price, the first half is neither a bargain nor a cheat. (Of the three other films—two at a weak $0.75 and one at a miserable but charitable $0.25—the less said, the better.)

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 12, Number 1, Whole # 145, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced irregularly by Walt Crawford.

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