Film Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Also known as: The Difference, The Persuader (both working titles)
Release Date: March 23rd, 1953 (Boston premiere)
Directed by: Ida Lupino
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young
Music by: Leith Stevens
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

The Filmakers Inc., RKO Radio Pictures, 71 Minutes

Review:

“You stink, Myers! You smell! Just like your clothes! Sure, you’ll make it to Guaymas, but they’ll catch up with you and put you out of your misery. You haven’t got a chance. You haven’t got a thing except that gun! You’d better hang onto it because without it, you’re finished! ” – Roy Collins

The Hitch-Hiker has the distinction of being the only classic film-noir directed by a woman. That woman was Ida Lupino, who went from being a very good actress to a pretty great director in a time when women weren’t often found behind the camera.

The movie is based on the crime spree of murderer Billy Cook, a psychotic who murdered six people on a 22 day rampage between Missouri and California that started the day before New Year’s Eve in 1950.

The character based off of Cook is renamed Emmett Myers and is played by William Talman in what is his most iconic role other than his 212 episode stint on Perry Mason as District Attorney Hamilton Burger. He is a sadistic killer and like a cat, likes to play with his victims before putting them down. In this film, we see him breakdown his captives over time.

In the story, two nice fishermen pickup a hitchhiker, Myers, and the rest is history. Myers bosses them around, plays games with them that force them into mortal danger and really doesn’t have much use for them other than his own amusement over their emasculation. This is a pretty deep movie for its time and it does things that weren’t common in motion pictures in the early 1950s. Being that this was directed by a woman is more intriguing. But it certainly wasn’t a statement about breaking men down in general, as the two who were victimized were nice, innocent people and it was the evil psychotic that pushed them to the limit. This was actually a film that tried to show what it was like to be held against your will by a psycho nut with a gun.

The acting and chemistry between the three leads was stellar and Lupino pulled great performances out of Talman, Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy. There were a few other characters in the movie but these three were the focal point and had to put this production on their backs.

The Hitch-Hiker is a darker and much better film than I expected it to be. It shows how well versed and comfortable Lupino was as a director in a male dominated industry. She lead her male cast towards creating something that was much better than a run of the mill film-noir.

Film Review: Double Team (1997)

Also known as: The Colony
Release Date: April 4th, 1997
Directed by: Tsui Hark
Written by: Don Jakoby, Paul Mones
Music by: Gary Chang
Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman, Paul Freeman, Mickey Rourke

Mandalay Entertainment, Film Workshop, Columbia Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Offense gets the glory.” – Jack Quinn, “But defense wins the game.” – Yaz

This film came out just as Jean-Claude Van Damme was spiraling down into the lowest part of his career. His vehicles kept getting worse thanks to atrocious scripts and low box office turnouts. He’d soon be downgraded to having his films come out as “straight to video” releases where he’d remain until resurrecting his career with JCVD. This probably isn’t the worst film he’s done but it’s certainly pretty well down in the murky barrel.

This was also a starring vehicle for Dennis Rodman, who was a part of the Chicago Bulls second threepeat team when this was made and released. Rodman was a sports celebrity superstar but even his involvement couldn’t elevate this film into anything worthwhile. Granted, two decades later, it has become some weird novelty movie that happens to have Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude Van Damme in it.

The film also stars Mickey Rourke and Paul Freeman. I feel bad for them being subjected to this massive turd but it’s directed by Tsui Hark, which on paper, makes this lineup of talent seem pretty damn good. Hark, a massive director in Hong Kong, just couldn’t cut the mustard in the United States but that’s probably because he aligned himself with the sinking ship that was Van Damme, as his two American films, both featured the actor. But maybe he was trying to follow John Woo’s lead, as that approach worked for him.

Double Team is a really hard movie to sit through, even at 90 minutes or so. It’s got deplorable editing, a script that would be better used as lining in a chicken coop, a nervous and awkward Dennis Rodman, Van Damme looking bored, Mickey Rourke looking depressed and Paul Freeman just looking around with a face that says, “WTF am I doing here?!”

Dennis Rodman’s acting career never took off and he followed this up with an even worse movie called Simon Sez. Switch out Jean-Claude Van Damme for Dane Cook and you can see how bad that film was.

Double Team is a pretty big offender and should be thrown into movie jail, if such a place exists. As is customary with pictures this bad, it must be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 7 Stool: Watery, no solid pieces. Entirely Liquid.”

Film Review: Razorback (1984)

Also known as: Razorback: Destructor (Argentina)
Release Date: April 19th, 1984 (Australia)
Directed by: Russell Mulcahy
Written by: Everett De Roche
Based on: Razorback by Peter Brennan
Music by: Iva Davies
Cast: Gregory Harrison

Greater Union Film Distributors, Warner Bros., Umbrella Entertainment, 95 Minutes

Review:

“There’s something about blasting the shit out of a razorback that brightens up my whole day.” – Jake Cullen

Razorback is like the Australian Jaws. Well, it is nowhere near as good as Jaws and it also takes place on land but there is just something frightening about a giant human eating boar. Plus, the Australian Outback is pretty intimidating on its own without having to worry about a killer pig the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

The film has a bit of an original Mad Max vibe to it but that’s more about the atmosphere and geography than anything else. It’s dusty, barren and has some shady Outback Australians running around doing shady stuff.

Razorback also has a bit of an artistic element when the hero is walking back to civilization through the desert and starts hallucinating. This is the coolest sequence in the entire film and it feels like a nod to Salvador Dalí, in its surrealist and bizarre style where vivid colors and strange animals take over the desert landscape.

The rest of the film is interesting enough to keep you engaged but it is still fairly slow at points. I liked the good guy characters and didn’t want to see harm come to them, so that’s a bonus for this being a horror movie where people would typically just be fresh meat for the monster.

The monster itself is mostly in the shadows. They don’t reveal the beast a lot, similar to what they did in the original Jaws, as it keeps things more suspenseful, makes you use your imagination and most importantly, hides the aesthetic imperfections of the creature’s model. The scenes where you do see the big ass boar are pretty well crafted. The editing isn’t superb but he does look terrifying when cut into the action.

Speaking of the editing, in general it is pretty shoddy. It’s not so bad that it takes you out of the picture but it is noticeable at times. I think with some shots and cuts they were trying to make this more artistic and creative but usually it missed the mark.

Razorback is a decent film with some primal scares but it’s mostly forgettable in the massive ocean that is natural horror featuring killer animals. Not to say that it isn’t unique, it is. It just doesn’t offer up anything all that captivating that would want to make you go back and watch this a second time.

Film Review: Repo Man (1984)

Release Date: February, 1984 (Berlin Film Festival)
Directed by: Alex Cox
Written by: Alex Cox
Music by: Tito Larriva, Steven Hufsteter, Iggy Pop (theme)
Cast: Harry Dean Stanton, Emilio Estevez, Tracey Walter, Olivia Barash, Sy Richardson, Susan Barnes, Fox Harris, Miguel Sandoval, Vonetta McGee, Helen Martin, The Circle Jerks

Edge City, Universal Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“Some weird fuckin’ shit, eh, Bud?” – Otto

I don’t know what it is about this movie that makes it so f’n cool but it is unequivocally, one of the coolest movies ever made.

I mean, it has Harry Dean Stanton in it, who is one of the coolest actors that ever lived. It also has Emilio Estevez entering the height of his career during his years in the Brat Pack. It’s also a unique film that when looking at it within the context of the time it came out, had to have been a real artistic curveball. Frankly, I can see where many films that came out after this got some of their inspiration or just outright thievery.

It feels like it could be a David Lynch picture but it makes more sense and doesn’t get lost in its weirdness like many of Lynch’s pictures do. It also isn’t relying on its surreal dreamlike quality to propel the picture forward. It has a pretty easy to follow story where the strange bits just enhance the experience and don’t distract from the narrative.

Emilio Estevez put in a good performance as a punk rock kid fired from his menial job only to stumble into the repo man profession. His mentor is played by Stanton and the two immediately have a great chemistry that makes you care about their developing friendship. 1984 was a great year for Stanton between this and Paris, Texas.

The film also has small roles for Tracey Walter, who is a damn fine character actor that always brings something special to every role, and Vonetta McGee, best known for her roles in blaxploitation films in the 1970s.

Repo Man is a sort of punk rock fairy tale that feels like it is in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future but it really just takes place in what was modern Los Angeles in 1984. It’s a surrealist, absurdist fantasy that sees a bunch of strange people chasing after an old Chevy Malibu that has some really bizarre cargo in its trunk. The car changes hands a lot and and as the story progresses Estevez’s Otto gets in deeper and deeper where he is fending off his old punk rock gang and a government agency led by a woman with a metal hand.

If you were able to take punk rock and a science fiction B-movie, add in some comedy and smash them together, you’d get this film but even then, this is much better than the sum of its parts. This is a film that many have tried to knock off and failed and at first glance, Repo Man might be a turn off due to the shoddy nature of most of its imitators. But this is the real deal original and this is the reason why a legion of young filmmakers started making similar works in tone and style.

In truth, this is a hard film to describe and even to review. It’s unique and I don’t say that lightly. But it’s a beautiful picture in how it’s orchestrated, acted and directed. The cinematography and lighting are pretty stellar too and certain scenes almost remind me of some of Wim Wenders’ work from that same era. That makes sense though, as the cinematographer was Robby Müller, who worked with Wenders a lot and his work on The American Friend and Paris, Texas have a similar color palate to this picture.

If you’ve never seen Repo Man, you’ve done yourself a disservice. It’s cool, badass and colorful in all the right ways. Plus, it kicks off with a theme song by Iggy Pop.

Film Review: Demon Knight (1995)

Also known as: Tales From the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight (complete title)
Release Date: January 13th, 1995
Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Written by: Mark Bishop, Ethan Reiff, Cyrus Voris
Music by: Edward Shearmur
Cast: Billy Zane, William Sadler, Jada Pinkett, Brenda Bakke, C. C. H. Pounder, Thomas Haden Church, Dick Miller, John Schuck, Gary Farmer, Charles Fleischer, Chasey Lain, Traci Bingham, John Larroquette (cameo), John Kassir

EC Comics, Universal Pictures, 92 Minutes

Review:

“Fuck this cowboy shit! You fucking ho-dunk, po-dunk, well then there motherfuckers! All you had to do was give me the goddamn key! Then we could get on with our lives. [cuts his hand to make new creatures] Alright… this house is hereby… condemned…” – The Collector

As a horror loving kid in the ’80s, I used to watch the shit out of HBO’s Tales From the Crypt. So when the show ended but they turned to producing movies, I was saddened but also kind of stoked.

I saw Demon Knight when it first came out in my local theater and I even got a copy of it on VHS when it was released later that year. It has been a really long time since I’ve seen it, however. Actually, the last time I saw it was when I still had a working VCR. Seeing it now, I forgot how absolutely insane and fun this movie was.

The film is directed by Ernest Dickerson, who started his career doing the cinematography in Spike Lee’s earliest films. Before directing this, he was in the director’s chair for Juice and Surviving the Game, two films I really liked as a teen and still enjoy today. Dickerson was a young, up and coming filmmaker when he got this gig. I feel like his work on Demon Knight enriched his oeuvre.

It didn’t hurt that Dickerson had an all-star cast in this thing. The two top roles went to William Sadler and Billy Zane. To be frank, this is still my favorite role that Zane has ever played. The film is rounded out by Jada Pinkett, Thomas Haden Church, C. C. H. Pounder, Dick Miller, Brenda Bakke and Roger Rabbit himself, Charles Fleischer. As a huge Dick Miller fanboy, I love him in this and he got his just desserts, at this point in his long career, as he gets to star opposite of a horde of big breasted naked ladies in his final scene.

This is a film that pulls no punches and just goes for it and that’s why it works so well, has held up nicely and is infinitely more fun and entertaining than 99 percent of modern horror. The demons are cool, Zane is cool, Sadler is cool, Dick Miller is Dick f’n Miller and this is just a bonkers movie in the greatest regard. In a lot of ways, Dickerson out Joe Dante’d Joe Dante.

I’m glad that I revisited this, which also has got me enthused about revisiting that other Tales From the Crypt movie, Bordello of Blood.

Film Review: The Strange Woman (1946)

Release Date: October 25th, 1946
Directed by: Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by: Hunt Stromberg, Edgar G. Ulmer, Herb Meadow
Based on: The Strange Woman by Ben Ames Williams
Music by: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Hedy Lamarr, George Sanders, Louis Hayward, Alan Napier

Hunt Stromberg Productions, Mars Film Corporation, United Artists, 100 Minutes

Review:

“[Giving a sermon, quoting from Proverbs 5:3] The lips of a strange woman drip honey, and her mouth is smoother than oil… But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword!” – Lincoln Pittridge

I’ve really come to enjoy Edgar G. Ulmer as a director. As I’ve been watching a lot of film-noir, in recent months, I was thoroughly impressed with his film Detour and also really enjoyed his earlier pictures The Black Cat and People On Sunday, which was a collaboration with other German and Austrian born noir directors, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder. Also being a fan of Hedy Lamarr, as an actress and a person, I had to give this film a shot.

It also stars George Sanders and Alan Napier has a small role in it too.

While this does fall into the realm of film-noir, it is very much a character study that showcases the bizarre behavior and traits of Hedy Lamarr’s Jenny Hager, a conflicted and complex woman who at first seems mean, selfish and irrational but you see her portrayed in such an honest and intimate light that you get the feeling that she isn’t always in control of her actions, as if some uncontrollable force is driving her. Nowadays, we call this stuff “mental illness”.

The film and the character of Jenny work so well because of how damn good Hedy Lamarr was in this role. She humanized a person that could have easily just been a monster or a one-dimensional femme fatale. Despite her wickedness, you feel something for her and like George Sanders’ John Evered, you want to help her. It’s easy to see why the men in the film get so wrapped up in her despite her natural beauty. I really need to work my way through Lamarr’s work again but this is my favorite performance she ever gave us.

Ulmer had a talent for taking something as common as a noir picture and giving it a little something extra. Detour was a harsh and high octane noir that is unique and exceptional. This film sort of does the same thing but it is less “in your face” about it. It’s got this underlying darkness that you don’t quite understand until the narrative evolves into something more personal and complex. But where Detour is like a wrestler in a no holds barred cage match to the death, The Strange Woman is more like a pretty girl that gives you a kiss but you don’t know you’ve been poisoned by her until its too late. Both are rough and brutal but in very different ways. Regardless, the end result is still pretty effective and final.

The Strange Woman isn’t the best film-noir and I do like Ulmer’s Detour more but it is still an intimate experience and a wild ride through a crazy woman’s mind. It’s well shot, stupendously acted and offers up something more than a typical noir picture.

Film Review: Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Release Date: July 1st, 1959
Directed by: Otto Preminger
Written by: Wendell Mayes
Based on: Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver
Music by: Duke Ellington
Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Kathryn Grant, George C. Scott, Duke Ellington (cameo)

Carlyle Productions, Columbia Pictures, 160 Minutes

Review:

“Twelve people go off into a room: twelve different minds, twelve different hearts, from twelve different walks of life; twelve sets of eyes, ears, shapes, and sizes. And these twelve people are asked to judge another human being as different from them as they are from each other. And in their judgment, they must become of one mind – unanimous. It’s one of the miracles of Man’s disorganized soul that they can do it, and in most instances, do it right well. God bless juries.” – Parnell Emmett McCarthy

If you ever told me that I’d watch a courtroom drama that’s nearly three hours long and that I’d love it, I’d call you a liar. Nothing is more boring to me than court movies. They’re overly talkie, use an abundance of legal jargon I don’t care to know and they just sit there, in one room, seemingly forever. Hell, I hate when television shows I love go into some multi episode courtroom story. I hate courtrooms, I hate jury duty and I thought Court TV was something that old people watched, hoping it would kill them sooner.

Yet, Anatomy of a Murder is to courtrooms what 12 Angry Men is to jury duty. It took something that I have less interest in than dusting sand and made it compelling, engaging, entertaining and hooked me emotionally. In short, it’s a spectacular film that I was glued to from start to finish.

I have become a fan of Otto Preminger’s work, especially his film-noir stuff. While this isn’t noir, it has that distinct Preminger touch and visual allure. It’s clean, crisp, warm and has a strange magnetism that pulls you in. Preminger really was a master of the silver screen, as his films always looked immaculate yet lived in with a sort of grandiose aura about them.

The absolute highlight of this film is seeing two legendary actors: James Stewart and George C. Scott, go head to head as rival lawyers during the trial that is the focus of the story. And really, I think that it is the incredible performances by these two that lured me in, even more so than this being a Preminger film. James Stewart just owns this role and his mere presence prevented this film from having a dull moment. George C. Scott was a great accent to Stewart, giving him a powerful foil to play off of. Stewart was like a 24 oz. bone-in tomahawk ribeye while Scott was the best Béarnaise sauce you could ever hope to taste.

The film also dealt with very controversial subject matter for the time. The trial involved a murder that was committed in defense of the killer’s wife being raped. This was taboo stuff for the 1950s and there’s even a scene in the film where the judge has to explain to the people in the court that he won’t permit any giggles or snickering at the mention of the word “panties”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a long film but it doesn’t feel like it. The set up and investigative stuff before the trial is probably the slowest part of the movie but that doesn’t take too long and once you are in the courtroom, this picture just takes off and doesn’t come back down until the credits roll.

This is a pretty perfect film for its time and its subject matter. It goes to show what kind of magic Hollywood can produce when you have a premier director and two paragons of pure acting talent.