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home : blogs_old : keeping it straight April 29, 2016

Keeping It Straight
By Bob Moore, Lake Havasu City, AZ
Thoughts from a true American on happenings both locally and nationally.
Friday, April 11, 2014

Another Selection of Often Overlooked Films

Bob Moore

THE THIEF (1952) - I first saw this film on TV in the mid-1950s and as an 11-year-old kid knew I was watching something very different. Film noir produced many films using "gimmicks" to entice the audience. The point of view sequences in DARK PASSAGE where we see the action through the eyes of Bogart is one example. And THE THIEF has one of the most unique gimmick ever conceived. Although shot in fully synchronized sound, it has no dialog. The film is one of those "spies are everywhere" propaganda pieces made during the age of McCarthyism, only this time - in what must have been an early nod to political correctness - the spy network is never identified as being those dirty, rotten, Soviet, Commie rats!

Allen Fields (Ray Milland - THE LOST WEEKEND, DIAL "M" FOR MURDER and THE THING WITH TWO HEADS) works as an award winning physicist for the Atomic Energy Commission and steals secrets. We see Fields going about his nefarious activities after he receives phone calls (which he never answers) from Mr. Bleek (Martin Gable - who made the most appearances [114] of any guest on WHAT'S MY LINE). There is a guy who should be arrested as a spy each time he steps out on the street. Talk about your "looks like a Commie spy" type! Once Fields uses his tiny spy camera the film is sealed in a metal container and begins its journey. It is secreted on a shelf in the Library of Congress where Bleek retrieves it then hands it off to another Commie (oops, we don't know that!) at an airport phone booth, where it travels to New York, is dropped into a woman's open handbag, handed to a man on the street, passed to yet another man who boards a plane bound for somewhere in Europe.

Things go like clockwork until a handoff in New York is followed by the courier being hit by a car and the film being found. The pictures are traced by the FBI to documents held by Dr. Lindstrum (whose safe was broken into by Fields) and the scientists at the AEC are immediately under suspicion. Fields receives a message to destroy the camera and make preparations to get the hell out of the country. He makes his way to New York and moves into a flea bag room awaiting further instructions. At the rooming house we meet The Girl (Rita Gam in her first film role). Instructions are to be received on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building where Fields spots an FBI agent who chases him to the very top level and then ...! THE THIEF is interesting beyond the no dialog gimmick. There are location shots of Washington DC, New York, the Library of Congress and the Empire State Building all filmed in an excellent noir style. Director Russell Rouse (D.O.A.) kept the pacing just about right as we watch Fields begin to mentally deteriorate from what he has done.

* * * * *

DEATH VALLEY - Peter Billingsley, Catherine Hicks, Stephen McHattie, Paul Le Mat, Wilford Brimley, Edward Hermann. Universal, 87 minutes, 1982.

Before becoming the Christmas Story icon Ralphie, Billingsley was Billy in his first big screen role as the little kid being chased by a serial killer (McHattie - JAMES DEAN, THE HIGHWAYMAN, JESSE STONE TV series) in Death Valley. At age 11, Billingsley shines as the boy sent from New York to vacation with his mother Sally (Hicks, MARILYN: THE UNTOLD STORY) and her boyfriend Mike (Le Mat - AMERICAN GRAFFITI, MELVIN AND HOWARD) on a trip to "The West."

The film opens with Billy and his Dad (Hermann) having a day out in New York City. Billy has difficulty accepting his Mom and Dad are no longer together and Hermann does an outstanding job of explaining how people can no longer love each other but still be friends.

At the Phoenix Airport Sally and Billy deplane and meet Mike. Billy is less than impressed with Mike and becomes one of those sullen kids we all consider to be a pain in the butt. As the trio enters Death Valley Billy spots a car (a 1958 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Special) that creeps him out and is relieved when it passes.

At an abandoned mine site three young people are murdered in an RV. Sally, Mike and Billy stop to view the scenery. Billy roams off to the stamp mill and finds the RV that he decides to investigate. Tension mounts as he opens doors inside, before Mike shows up and stops him just before he opens THE door. Billy also steals a necklace he found in the RV. During lunch at the Furnace Creek Inn, Billy spots an identical necklace around the neck of their waiter (McHattie).

On the way to Frontier Town they come across a crash scene and a burning RV. Mike tells the sheriff (Brimley) they had seen the RV earlier in the day. Billy tells the sheriff he stole the necklace and hands it over. At Frontier Town, Billy goes exploring the museum where the killer stalks and takes a shot at him, totally not bothering Billy (well after all, the kid is from New York).

At the hotel the killer chases Billy through the grounds. Billy manages to elude him by climbing into a car. Mike and Sally show up and, with Billy missing, head for the "Peterson Place." The killer arrives; Billy sneaks out of the car and goes into the house shouting, "Mom, Mike!" The twist we anticipated takes place at a "Desert Castle" where Billy proves his prowess with a handgun.

Released during the slasher film explosion of the early 1980s, DEATH VALLEY doesn't hit the mark as a slasher flick, but comes across as a pretty good thriller - although the pacing at times is too slow. Le Mat demonstrates why he never really made it big, Billingsley proves his mettle as an excellent young actor and the remainder of the cast did credible work, while dealing with a very poor script.

* * * * *

RUBBER - "Careful where you tread" - Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida, Jack Plotnick, Wings Hauser, D. Quentin Dupieux, 83 min

The most difficult part of making RUBBER had to have been the selection of the main character, Robert. Steel belted radials are noted for their prickly attitudes when it comes to taking direction, but Robert stepped up and provided a flawless performance as the tire that comes to life and through psychokinetic powers explodes the heads of those who cross him.

The film opens with a guy (Plotnick) holding about two dozen binoculars while a car weaves through and knocks over a series of randomly placed chairs on a remote desert road. The car stops and the sheriff (Sinella) climbs from the trunk, accepts a glass of water from the driver and immediately begins speaking to the camera, explaining that what happens in film and life occur for "no %$#@!^ reason," and winds up telling us the film we are about to see is homage to no reason.

A group of people are each handed a set of binoculars and told to turn around and "enjoy." And as they stare into the desert the credits roll and we see Robert for the first time, lying half buried in the sand. Slowly he begins to move and with massive determination stands upright and then with faltering attempts begins to move across the desert. As the sun sets Robert falls to one side and sleeps.

Dawn brings a new day and the spectators waken to watch Robert as he drinks from a puddle of water and then, with sidewalls flexing, blows a desert rabbit to hell. The music surges and Robert is off in search of additional victims. Reaching the highway he spots a girl (Mesquida) speeding along in her VW Rabbit (clever, that!) and causes the car to come to a stop, but before he can reach her he is hit by a speeding pick-up and knocked to the side of the road.

As the rubber hits the road (sorry, couldn't resist) Robert makes his way to a lonely, trashy - and as such glorious - desert motel where "the girl" has gone. We see the typical inhabitants of such a place - some that will experience the wrath of Robert's sidewall flexing. Meanwhile, out in the desert, the "spectators" have all been dispatched by poison turkey (nice feeding frenzy scene) except for the wheelchair bound, irascible Old Bastard, played by Wings Hauser.

At this point the film is brought to an end - or so we think - as the sheriff's watch alarm goes off and he says, "It's been six hours. The poison has taken effect so we can stop." He then gathers everyone and tells them they can go home and that everything is fake. When told one spectator is still alive and he must go on he pulls a production note from his pocket, commenting, "Oh God, the kid was right. The tire is the killer!"

The Old Man still refuses to eat, insisting he wants to watch until the end and is told, "There is no end." (Holy crap!) Robert observes a huge tire fire in the desert and winds up in a double-wide watching NASCAR. The sheriff's deputies put an explosive packed dummy on the porch and sucker Robert, but he won't be fooled.

The Old Man shows up and tells the sheriff things are moving too slowly, "Speed it up!" The sheriff charges into the double-wide with a shotgun and comes out with a blown to crap tire tread, tosses it at the Old Man and walks away. Slowly a tricycle rolls onto the porch and as the Old Man yells that Robert has been reincarnated blows up the old guy and his wheelchair.

This has to be one of the more bizarre films of the past few years and yet, strangely, it is compelling and interesting - despite the low budget and odd concept (well the director IS FRENCH after all!). And what other film can possibly provide us with the insights of being a tire that learns, sleeps, and has flashbacks to his life as the right front of an American sedan? Overall, not a total waste of 83 minutes.

* * * * *

ZZYZX (aka Burned) - Kenny Johnson, Robyn Cohen, Ryan Fox. D: Richard Halpern, 2007, Yarble Films, 81 minutes.

Zzyzx (rhymes with Issacs) is a real place renamed from Soda Springs in 1944 when radio evangelist, self proclaimed doctor and minister, Curtis Howard Springer, established the Zzyzx Mineral Spring and Health Spa at this location a few miles southwest of Baker, Calif. (the site of the no longer functioning World's Tallest Thermometer). Springer wanted the name to be the last word in the English dictionary. He used the natural spring to bottle and sell water and built the many buildings that still stand at the site where he offered hot mineral baths, healthy foods combined with religious services. Springer called himself the "last of the old time medicine men," was named in 1969 by the American Medical Association as "The King of Quacks" and built a radio studio where his syndicated program solicited donations in exchange for miracle cures ranging from hair loss to cancer. In 1974 the government took Springer to court for squatting on the land, won the case and took over the property. Today Zzyzx is a Desert Studies Center for the California State University system.

In 2006 Richard Halpern, in his directorial debut, took a small film crew and cast to a location on the road leading to Zzyzx and produced a gritty, slightly disjointed, horror flick starring Kenny Johnson (COLD CASE, THE SHIELD, SAVING GRACE, SONS OF ANARCHY, PRIME SUSPECT, BURN NOTICE), Robyn Cohen (THE LIFE AQUATIC, GRAVITY) and Ryan Fox (PACINO AND PACINO TALENT AGENCY).

The film opens with a Mexican family pulling off the road for a pee break and while dad and son are doing their business their combined streams uncover bones buried in a ravine. Okay, keep that in mind.

Next we see two guys, Lou (Johnson) a returned vet from Iraq, and Ryan (Fox) a computer game designer, who have pulled off the interstate and onto Zzyzx Road where they see a man, Manny, the one-legged victim, staggering along the road. Lou says they should run the guy over because no one will see them or ever know. Ryan disagrees (Really?) and as they struggle with the wheel the car careens into the man killing him. Lou takes his wallet and watch and the two struggle to get Manny shoe-horned in the back seat of the Delta 88. As they begin to drive away they see a woman walking along the road towards them. Candice (Cohen) is looking for her husband, Manny, and tells the guys their motor home is stuck in the sand further up the road. Lou and Ryan tell her they haven't seen Manny and offer to drive her back and help get the motor home mobile once again. Candice gets in the front seat while Ryan sits atop Manny's blanket covered body in the back seat. As she looks at Lou she notices he is wearing Manny's watch (uh, oh!), but doesn't say anything.

As the plot unwinds we find that no one in this film is worth the powder to blow them to hell. Each character is loathsome and that adds to the enjoyment of watching as they each work towards their ultimate demise. Lou is dealing with PTSD from his time in Iraq, Ryan is somehow taken over by strange messages he hears on his radio headset and Candice is just your basic slut piece of trash. Each actor does an excellent job of making the case that we should not give a hoot-in-hell for any of them.

Candice drugs the boys - Lou is so messed up the drugs don't do much and Ryan just stumbles around not knowing what in the hell is going on. Candice tries to steal the Delta 88 without success and in the process discovers Manny's blanket covered body in the back seat. Through a series of flashbacks we learn Candice was not married to Manny and had picked him up at a Las Vegas casino after the poor sap won $50,000. On the way back to L.A. Manny pulled off on Zzyzx Road (and in the process got the motor home stuck in the sand) to get a little action with Candice and she drugged him, resulting in his staggering out on the road and being hit by Lou and Ryan.

Things crank up as Lou goes after Candice for hitting him in the head, leaving him with a chunk of blood soaked paper towel stuck to his face, while Ryan stumbles around listening to the ravings of a radio evangelist telling him the unworthy must die, and Candice continues to go nuts trying to find Manny's loot.

Manny is hauled from the car by Lou, who drags it to a nearby ravine (ahh, the ravine!) and is attacked by Candice as he attempts to burn the body. Ryan, out of his mind by this time, nails Lou - multiple times - with a golf club and then has sex with Candice, who gouges out his eyes. Candice realizes Manny's fifty grand is hidden in his prosthetic leg and uses a piece of window glass from the Delta 88 to hack the prosthesis away from the stump.

As the moon rises high in the desert sky we see Candice struggling across the barren landscape carrying Manny's leg.

Back to the Mexican father and son taking a leak in the desert. The family sets to digging up the bones and finds the prosthetic leg and Dad suspects something is hidden inside. He extracts a Pringles can and the boy immediately goes for the chips. Dad smacks the can out of the boy's hands and as it hits the ground rolls of money fall out. "Madre de Dios," mom says and the family climbs back into the overloaded Gremlin and heads for home - after a brief decision to NOT go to Las Vegas - and in the backseat the little girl slips on Ryan's radio headset and begins hearing the radio evangelist telling her she must kill the unworthy.

Great film? Nope? But overall a nice, very low-budget, study of three despicable people with some excellent acting by both Johnson and Cohen. And don't forget to listen to the cell phone messages following the credits.

* * * * *

THE PHANTOM EMPIRE - Gene Autry, Frankie Arro, Betsy King Ross, Smiley Burnette. 1935. 12 chapter serial.

I wasn't born in time to catch the heyday of the movie serial, but thanks to KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles (the first commercial television station in Los Angeles, going on the air in January of 1947, the first to broadcast west of the Mississippi River, and the seventh station overall in the United States) and their need for programming I was able to see many serials. One of those that fascinated me was the singing cowboy/western/sci fi/action adventure gem THE PHANTOM EMPIRE.

Gene Autry, who plays Gene Autry in the serial, was a popular singing cowboy heard on the radio and THE PHANTOM EMPIRE was his first foray into film virtually at the same time Roy Rogers (nee Leonard Slye), another singing cowboy, appeared on the movie screen.

The serial opens with Autry broadcasting his daily radio show from Radio Ranch, a dude ranch in ... well, we never find that out. Autry has two sidekicks, Frankie Baxter (Frankie Darro - one of those guys who always looked like a kid and had been making films since 1924. Darro did a series of comic films with comedian Mantan Moreland during the 1930s) and his sister Betsy Baxter (Betsy King Ross - billed as the "World's Champion Trick Rider" who, following THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, retired [at age 13] from the movie industry). The "kids" head up a group known as The Junior Thunder Riders who - dressed in capes and water-bucket helmets and using the motto, "To the rescue!" - mimic the mysterious Thunder Guard who ride across the countryside making a sound like thunder. Darro and Ross did their own stunt riding in the film.

We soon learn that the strange and mysterious Muranians occupy a giant city in caverns beneath the Radio Ranch having built the city after the ancient continent of Mu sank beneath the ocean and built the super-scientific underground empire of Murania (25,000 feet beneath the surface) complete with towering buildings, robots, ray-guns, elevator tubes that extend miles from the surface, and the icy, blonde, evil Queen Tika. Their rich supply of radium draws unscrupulous speculators from the surface corrupting the peaceful civilization of the Muranians is corrupted by greed from above. And it becomes Autry's task to prevent all-out war, ideally without disrupting his regular radio show, which he must do each day at 2PM or lose the ranch! On the surface, criminals led by Professor Beetson plan to invade Murania and seize its radium wealth, while in Murania, a group of revolutionaries plots to overthrow Queen Tika.

Cliff hangers, bad acting, comical special effects and hokey robots make THE PHANTOM EMPIRE a joy to watch. The serial - as did many of them - fell into the realm of public domain and 16mm film transfers have been marketed on DVD. Some of these are beyond horrible. If you decide to check out THE PHANTOM EMPIRE look for the 3 DVD set produced by The Serial Squadron. Although not perfect it is about the best one out there.

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