(above: Johnny Guitar. Plays Nov 6.)
by Richard von Busack
Trannies, girl gangsters, cowboys and weirdoes: Elliot Lavine’s mini-retrospective in glorious 35mm at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater is titled Not Necessarily Noir II, and in an era where digital film is starting to define what can be replayed in smaller indie theaters, this fest brings back more than a few rare, tangy and damned strange films on film.
The Killers/Play Misty for Me (1964/1971)
Don Siegel takes on one of Ernest Hemingway’s most compact Nick Adams stories, and spreads it out a bit; Swede the boxer becomes a teacher named Johnny North (John Cassavetes), whose sordid past causes the two executioners (Lee Marvin and Oklahoma’s own Clu Gulager) to find out what the hell happened to him.
What happened involves a double-dealing and vicious crime boss, played, in his best and last acting role by Ronald Reagan.
BILLED WITH Play Misty For Me. Clint Eastwood’s directoral debut, shot in Carmel. He’s a jazz DJ who starts to receive menacing phone calls from a lonely woman with a thing for Errol Garner’s 1954 hit. Jessica Walter is less “restless kitten up a tree” than cougar on the stalk. One of two movies that year where Eastwood was the quarry (another being the creepier The Beguiled). People who feel that Eastwood is a hard-working but limited director have to deal with this one—one of his best, and one that owes the most to his mentor Don Siegel (who cameos). 35 mm prints.
Brainstorm/Blow Out (1965/1981)
A love triangle: unhappy wife Anne “Honey West” Francis, scientist Jeffrey Hunter and husband-in-the-way Dana Andrews. Hunter’s seemingly brilliant plan to avoid taking the rap for a murder ends up going sour. It’s a well-regarded late harvest noir in the Preminger vein. William Conrad directed, and if it’s anything we’ve learned from Hitchcock, it’s that fat men are full of dark passions.
BILLED WITH Blow Out. The title tweaks Antonioni, but this is a much better film than Blow Up. It’s Brian De Palma’s very sick and extremely playful story of what happens to a foley artist (John Travolta) who stumbles into a conspiracy of some very scary political people. John Lithgow is very bad news as a G. Gordon Liddy type; Nancy Allen is delicious as a party girl, a Mary Joe Kopechne who had the misfortune to survive. It’s a thrilling, jaundiced movie, perfect for paranoid times, with maybe the best use of downtown Philadelphia in any movie made.
Johnny Guitar/ Female on the Beach
(1954/1955) Flamboyant, yes, but not camp as such, unless you think the sight of Joan Crawford with a pistol is ridiculous. Those who did seldom lasted long. Nicholas Ray opposes three groups of New Mexico frontiersmen: first, some sexually loose entertainers, secondly, a gang of robbers, dressed in violent colors, who are more victims of circumstances than serious outlaws. The third flange of the trouble is a local property owner and her minions: she’s Mercedes McCambridge as rancher and boss lady, who dresses like an avenging nun.
Drifting into town, John Logan (Sterling Hayden) upsets the balance. He’s given up the gunmen’s game and has come back with a guitar and a new name to work on Vienna’s gambling hall. This “Johnny Guitar” has a past with boss lady Vienna (Crawford). But Johnny has a beef with the way Vienna earned her spread—the hard way, “board by board”. And he’s not happy about the presence of her latest fancy man “The Dancing Kid.”
Pretty soon, even the mountains are exploding with repressed passions, and the various groups are starting to leak members and turn coats: most steadfast is the worst of them, the no-good Ernest Borgnine. He’s a woman hater to whom even New York City itself “smells like fish”. His fellow outlaws worry about him: “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you’re mean to the horses…”
Johnny Guitar meets all the demands of a Republic film with Trucolor vistas, a burning barn-sized building, a hanging, an outlaw’s roost hidden behind a waterfall. It’s the other aspects of this film that stop people in their tracks. While efficiently leading this cast through the adventure, Ray stresses it all as a plea for tolerance (“A posse is an animal!”). It makes clear references to the ordeals of the Blacklist Joan Crawford seizes it and takes it over, making herself what she called “the Clark Gable” of the picture. And Crawford is good. She’s entering her third decade as a movie star here, and she takies the story very seriously, as seriously as if it were Mildred Pierce in buckskins. See this and wonder if maybe it’s time to retire the word “camp.”
BILLED WITH Female on the Beach, A beach wastrel attracts a mature woman…Crawford tangles with another shaky younger man (Brainstorm’s Jeff Chandler)—a favorite topic for her, in Autumn Leaves and elsewhere. Not available in any stores!
Teenage Gang Debs/Girl Gang (1966/1954)
“I’m still your deb, and I’ve got the scars to prove it!” Hear Tom Jonesish strains of Lee Dovell’s “Don’t Make Me Mad." Dig the urgent bongos that bong away through gang-bangs thrown by these gang-bangers. (They call these occurrences “a line-up”.) Director Sande N. Johnsen, a man with a host of aliases, follows the Lady Macbeth style rise of Terry Fiore (Diane Conti), who sashays her way into Brooklyn’s Rebels motorcycle club, sleeps with “the Prez” (the John Travolta shaped John Batis) and then dumps him in favor of his second in command. Footage of actual motorcycle gangs pad it out (the Aliens of Queens are the most easily identified, and they know how to stage a fight scene—at least I hope it’s staged).
As for the way The Rebels rebel: it’s through some penny pitching and a lot of frugging. The plot slips out the back door; don’t get your hopes up that Terry is an Undercover Deb sent in to avenge the “line-up” victim in the pre-titles. The actors playing gang members look like they’d be way more comfortable in the cast of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Sensation-wise, the film’s in the proto-roughie stage; the sex scenes get stuck at second base more often that the San Diego Padres. 35mm prints from Johnny Legend.
BILLED WITH Girl Gang. The nicest thing to say about this hour long programmer “personally supervised” by LA sleaze film entrepreneur George Weiss is that every time someone gets shot up with heroin, the soundtrack plays that harp glissando they usually use to let us know a flashback is going to occur. That’s kind of wonderful.
Glen or Glenda/Plan 9 From Outer Space/Jail Bait
(1954/1959/1953) A triple barreled night of Ed Wood, Jr, and if you haven’t treated yourself to the wild world of Wood, here’s a perfect introduction.
The man leading the charge that Wood was the world’s worst director is Michael Medved, so consider that source. Johnny Depp’s own love for Wood is at one with his love for Hunter Thompson, who also tended to warp the Golden Mean a bit, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
People who feel Wood is lacking in something, I’d argue, would complain that a Oaxacan alabrije wasn’t art because it didn’t look like a recognizable animal.
Wood usually took some kind of cinematic model and tried to carve it to his own inimitable specs. Plan 9 From Outer Space, plagued by budget and technical problems, is, beneath it all, a heartfelt plea for ending the nuclear arms race; he’s a folk artist trying to copy the scope of The Day The Earth Stood Still, only without the budget for robots, Bernard Herrmann and Patricia Neal.
Jail Bait—Wood’s riff on the Bogie plastic-surgery movie Dark Passage—is wonderful, first off because it has no underage girls actually in it. A desperate criminal begs to have his face changed, and the focus wobbles; the story is composed of snips, snails and in some versions (this one?) clips from a diseased puppy-dog tail called Yes Sir, Mr. Bones. Minstrel shows always make things worse.
Glen or Glenda? is Wood at his most avant-garde and ahead of the pack: a story of his life as a transvestite, thinly disguised and framed with appearances by not one Satan but two of them: Captain DeZita as the mute phantom lurking behind the couch; Bela Lugosi, as a “scientist” orders the sinner to “pull the string!” while warning him of the great green dragon on his doorstep. World’s worst director? Than where does that place Dr. Uwe Boll, I ask you.
Plus Wood World, a collection of snippets and oddities compiled by Johnny Legend.