Tuesday 30 May 2023

Tough Enough (1983)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: John Leone
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Carlene Watkins, Stan Shaw, Pam Grier and Warren Oates

Index: The First Thirty.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite so much. Sure, it’s a Pam Grier film, but she’s hardly in it, despite her fourth billing. It’s also a Dennis Quaid film and a Warren Oates film, a bizarre pairing I’m very happy to see. Wilfred Brimley and Bruce McGill help too, as does the director being Richard Fleischer.

Those are all plus points but the genre isn’t. If there’s anything I’m less likely to enjoy than a sports movie, it’s a romcom and this film is a sports romcom. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a sports romcom about a country and western singer. In 1983. Well past the Every Which Way But Loose sell-by date.

Both the blurb and the torso on the poster opposite belong to Dennis Quaid’s character, Art Long, who is certainly not having the best time of it as the movie begins. He has a good crowd at the Pickin’ Parlour, where he sings country and plays guitar, but he also follows a wet T-shirt competition, so that crowd doesn’t want Art Long. One table starts to throw stuff at him, so he clambers off stage mid-song and punches all three of them out.

That actually plays out in his favour because his wife is fed up with him not making money with his music and that prompts him to enter a toughman competition, hence the title, for a potential $5,000 prize. And that competition is run by the same folk who were offering prizes for the wet T-shirt competition. They saw him throw those punches and they were impressed enough to want him on their roster. Suddenly, he’s the Country Western Warrior.

Saturday 27 May 2023

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Director: Daniel Petri
Writer: Heywood Gould, suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore
Stars: Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin and Kathleen Beller

Index: The First Thirty.

I’d heard good things about Fort Apache, the Bronx, which has become a cult film for a star as huge as Paul Newman, but I’d never seen it and I didn’t really know what it was.

Well, it’s a crime film that’s set in New York City, which aims not to tell a single coherent story but to give us a taste of a whole bunch of them, using a style we’re familiar with from Hill Street Blues and so many shows following in its wake. Fred Silverman, a network executive who developed Hill Street Blues, has said that his chief inspiration for it was this film, so it’s the beginning of that genre, something clearly not grasped at the time. You can’t measure the amount of influences something will generate from its opening weekend.

The leads are Paul Newman and Ken Wahl, as a pair of NYPD officers working at the 41st Precinct, nicknamed Fort Apache because it’s an ill-equipped and rundown outpost isolated in enemy territory, 70,000 of those enemies across four square blocks of city.

To add to their concerns, a single act at the start of the film, the cold blooded murder of a pair of rookie cops, grows out of proportion. A new captain, in the capable form of Ed Asner, has been shipped in and his responses inflame the situation, leading to rioting in the streets and an outright siege of the station.

Pam Grier doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this one, as was the case in Greased Lightning, but, boy, does she make it count this time! She plays a drug addicted hooker named Charlotte, who we might initially take for a party girl or a calculating murderess, given that she’s who shoots those two cops. She sets them up, takes them down and walks away. The locals fleece the corpses clean as effectively as Jawas.

Thursday 25 May 2023

Greased Lightning (1977)

Director: Michael Schultz
Writers: Kenneth Vose & Lawrence DuKore and Melvin Van Peebles and Leon Capetanos
Stars: Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little, Vincent Gardenia, Richie Havens and Julian Bond

Index: The First Thirty.

Continuing her shift away from exploitation pictures, here’s something that’s a biopic just a little before it’s an action movie, albeit still with a focus on African Americans in America.

The subject is Wendell Scott, who became a stock car driver at a time when NASCAR was whites only. He drove in the Dixie Circuit, as the token black driver to draw black fans, with prejudiced drivers deliberately wrecking him as often as they could. He went on to become the first black driver to race and win at every level in NASCAR, eventually doing the same as a team owner.

He had a fascinating and action-filled life, a description that’s both accurate and too happy to gloss over the fact that much of that action was due to systematic racial discrimination. It was an obvious candidate to adapt to the big screen and the studio that did so was Warner Bros., who cast comedian Richard Pryor as the lead and tellingly gifted the project to a black director, Michael Schultz, and a set of writers who included Melvin van Peebles, who had set the blaxploitation genre into motion with his indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song six years earlier.

As tended to be the case with Hollywood, it turns out to be a loose adaptation of the truth, but not to play down the racial aspects, only to simplify them a little. And, while this is tame for Pryor, whose comedy routines were highly adult, it starts out as it means to go on with a boy who’s born to race. The first thing we see is a bunch of white kids challenging him to a bicycle race in the street. He wins and he does it by jumping some sort of roadwork that the rest don’t dare try. “You’re one crazy nigger,” says the leader of the white kids. I think it’s a form of respect.

Sunday 21 May 2023

Twilight of Love (1977)

Director: Luigi Scattini
Writers: Luigi Scattini, Vittorio Schiraldi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart and Claude Fournier, from a story by Luigi Scattini, freely based on the novel Il Corpo by Alfredo Todisco
Stars: Anthony Steel, Annie Belle, Pamela Grier, Hugo Pratt, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Alain Montpetit and Gerardo Amato

Index: The First Thirty.

Completely unrelated to the Filipino horror movie, The Twilight People, released five years earlier, this Italian production is unrelated to anything else in Pam Grier’s filmography too.

In fact, that seems to be much of the point, as the first half of her First Thirty movies was taken up by variations on a theme, a bunch of exploitation movies, especially the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her famous; but the second half is a constant flow of fresh changes, every film being completely unlike the next.

And this one, as far as I can tell, is different from all of them, because it’s a very European “affair” movie. IMDb suggests that it’s drama and romance but the drama is forced and the romance is, well, not very romantic.

At least, as far as I can tell, which is a caveat I have to throw out here because the one and only copy of this film I could find is in Italian, which I don’t speak, and there are no subtitles to be found, even in the fan communities that exist for this sort of thing.

Thus I have little idea of what’s truly going on and everything I say here is shaped by my assumptions, which could well be faulty. Then again, this is an Italian film so it’s highly visual in outlook and, if it’s doing its job, it ought to be universally understandable, even to those of us who don’t know the language.

Thursday 18 May 2023

Drum (1976)

Director: Steve Carver
Writer: Norman Wexler, based on the novel by Kyle Onstott
Stars: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Ken Norton, Pamela Grier, Yaphet Kotto, John Colicos and Brenda Sykes

Index: The First Thirty.

Friday Foster was Pam Grier’s fifteenth film, so I’m halfway into her First Thirty. It was also the end of her traditional exploitation output, the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her such a cult figure. Drum is still an exploitation movie, even though it was a major studio film, and it’s still black focused, but it’s a very different picture.

It’s the lesser known sequel to Mandingo, an immensely successful novel written by Kyle Onstott in 1957 that became a play and then a film, with James Mason and Susan George. The book sold five million copies in the U.S. alone and spawned fourteen sequels, starting with Drum. The movie only spawned this one.

These are stories of the antebellum south, if we want to bowdlerise things. We should call them stories of sadistic slaveowners, because Onstott was inspired not only by the stories he grew up hearing, “bizarre legends” about slave breeding and abuse, but by research done by his adopted anthropologist son in Africa.

While we end up in the central location for the series, the Falconhurst plantation owned by Hammond Maxwell, it’s not where we start and he’s actually the nicest of the slaveowners we meet. Then again, there wasn’t much of a bar to top. He’s still a slaveowner with a crude nature, a bedwench and a willingness to whip and castrate and more.

But we start out in Havana, the heart of the slave trade, and quickly shift to New Orleans. Dona Marianna lived in the former but fell in love with a slave, Tempura, a king in his own land back in Africa. That got him strung up but she was pregnant and left for the latter to run a brothel in which her son, Drum, who’s unaware that she’s his mother, becomes the bartender. It’s fifteen years on from Mandingo and Drum is twenty years old.

Monday 15 May 2023

Friday Foster (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Orville H. Hampton, based on a story by Arthur Marks, based in turn on the comic strip character created by Jim Lawrence
Stars: Pam Grier, Yaphet Kotto, Godfrey Cambridge, Thalmus Rasulula, Eartha Kitt and Jim Backups

Index: The First Thirty.

This might look like yet another Pam Grier-led kick ass blaxploitation flick, but it’s a little different from Coffy and Foxy Brown and all the copycats that sprang up in their wake. In fact, it doesn’t feel like a black movie at all, even if most of its cast happen to be black. If casting had gone for white actors instead, it wouldn’t feel fundamentally different and that couldn’t be said for any of Grier’s earlier blaxploitation pictures. They all felt black, not colourblind.

Initially, this one feels like it’s a newspaper story with a plucky young photographer (who used to be a model) taking on a big story. It’s a throwback to Torchy Blane in the thirties, but with a black actress in the lead.

She’s Friday Foster, of course, and she works for Glance, “the picture magazine”. Her boss, Monk Riley, in the form of Julius Harris from Live and Let Die, calls her on New Year’s Eve to handle a big job because he can’t reach his star reporter, Shawn North, and Blake Tarr is back in town and that’s a big deal because he’s the “black Howard Hughes”.

So, she’ll have to do the job. Get down to the airport, shoot your pictures, get out. He’s very careful with instructions. Don’t. Get. Involved. What he doesn’t expect is for Carl Weathers and his buddies to attempt an assassination as Tarr gets off his private plane and Friday to be right in the middle of it, snapping pictures like there’s no tomorrow. What she doesn’t expect is to recognise Weathers when the photos are developed. This is journalistic gold.

Friday 12 May 2023

Bucktown (1975)

Director: Arthur Marks
Writer: Bob Ellison
Stars: Fred Williamson, Pam Grier, Thalmus Rasulala, Tony King, Bernie Hamilton, Art Lund, Morgan Upton, Carl Weathers, Robert Burton, Jim Bohan, Gene Simms, Bruce Watson and Tierre Turner

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s an interesting one and I’m watching for two reasons, not just because it’s the next in Pam Grier’s First Thirty but because it was one of Fred Williamson’s two Make It a Double picks, so I’ll be covering it soon from his angle.

It’s a better pick for him than it is for her, a film that gives him a good introduction then builds him far more than I expected.

It initially feels like an episode of a TV show. Everything kicks right in: the opening credits, the funky music and the action. The very first scene is cops lusting after a hooker, but they rush off to beat up a black guy at the station as a train pulls in.

Getting off that train is Duke Johnson, in Bucktown to bury his brother. And that’s the Hammer, who sees the cops but does nothing, just gets a cab to the Club Alabama. “Do you believe in God?” the cabbie asks him. “Then you’re in the wrong place.”

The club’s been closed since Ben died. Duke just wants to sell it and get out of there, but he has sixty days for the estate to close, so others start feeding him ideas. Stay. Reopen the club. What he wasn’t expecting to do was stand up to the cops, who are all white and working the local protection racket. But, because he’s the Hammer, that’s exactly what he does and we settle back for a traditional blaxploitation flick with a good cast.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

Sheba, Baby (1975)

Director: William Girdler
Writers: William Girdler and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Austin Stroker and D’Urville Martin

Index: The First Thirty.

“She’s kicking ass and taking names,” sings Barbara Mason in the movie’s opening theme song. It shouldn’t take much to figure out who. “Sheba, baby,” that’s who. And Sheba, baby is Pam Grier, of course, Sheba Shayne of Racker & Shayne, Private Investigators.

Now, this firm is in Chicago, but she’s called quickly back to her home town of Louisville, Kentucky, because her father, Andy Shayne of Shayne Loan Co., is being hassled there. He gives fair deals to customers but his partner Brick isn’t confident that they can continue to do that with the mob piling on the pressure.

“They’ll kill you,” he tells him and wanders off into the night on his own, the exact point we realise that either he’s in the mob’s pocket or the script needed a lot more work. Given that it’s Brick who promptly calls Sheba to fly back to help save the business and keep Andy alive, it should be clear that the script is going to hold this one back.

And, boy does it, with a whole slew of plot conveniences, continuity errors and good old fashioned goofs. Even the sound isn’t good and the whole film plays like a cheap knock-off of a bunch of Pam Grier’s earlier blaxploitation flicks but with worse dialogue. Even Pam feels a little awkward early on, but she finds herself soon enough and brings some serious power to scenes that show what this could have been in the right hands.

She’s needed, even though her dad thinks he can take care of things on his own. He lends her a car and it blows up. So she quits listening to him and starts helping. After all, the police won’t provide any protection. So she asks her questions with a gun and gets somewhere.

Saturday 6 May 2023

Foxy Brown (1974)

Director: Jack Hill
Writers: Jack Hill and David Sheldon
Stars: Pam Grier, Peter Brown, Terry Carter, Kathryn Loder and Harry Holcombe

Index: The First Thirty.

In some ways, Foxy Brown, which started life as a sequel to Coffy titled Burn, Coffy, Burn!, had a bigger impact on film than its predecessor. It’s not a better movie and there are a slew of problems if you think even a little about the details, but it kept the things that worked for its target audience and focused them better to provide a film that would resonate with them even more deeply.

The most obvious detail it kept is the kick-ass female lead played by Pam Grier. This was her twelfth film and it feels like she had been building to these movies all the way through. Just as importantly, it kept the fact that she’s a good girl, even if we aren’t let in on her choice of day job. Coffy was a nurse, a saver of people. Foxy is a little less clear, but she does right by her brother, who doesn’t deserve it, and quite a few others, who do. She does what she does to help people, even if it’s vigilante justice.

What it firmly ditched was any semblance of guilt about doing those things. Coffy did what she felt she must because of her sister, but she agonised over it afterwards. Foxy’s trigger is a boyfriend, who’s murdered by drug dealers on her doorstep, but she never looks back. What she does apparently fails to phase her at all. It simplifies the question. And she does it all in a stylish wardrobe, courtesy of Ruthie West, her personal costumer on the film.

Grier, of course, is excellent, because she’s believable as the sister, girlfriend, community member who cares, but she’s also believable as a lady who will do anything it takes to take the bad guys down. Oddly, it takes a while for her to actually kill anyone in this film, but she gets there, of course, and she’s even colder blooded than that, as we find in a gruesome late scene that presages the finalĂ© of Se7en. What’s in the box, right?

Thursday 4 May 2023

One Way Pendulum (1965)

Director: Peter Yates
Writer: N. F. Simpson, based on his stage play
Stars: Eric Sykes, George Cole, Julia Foster, Jonathan Miller and Peggy Mount

Index: 2023 Centennials.

As a critic, I learned long ago to avoid superlatives. This isn’t the best, it’s the best right now. That isn’t the worst, it’s the worst that I can think of. And that over there isn’t the most outrageous, it’s the most outrageous so far. That said, I would be fascinated to find a feature film more surreal than this one, especially played straight in a humdrum setting. If you know of one, please tell me about it. What’s most surprising is that it was directed by Peter Yates, not just because he would go on to direct successful features with a complete lack of surreality like Bullitt, The Deep and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, but because he’d already done that with a 1963 debut, the Cliff Richard musical, Summer Holiday. This was like nothing he’d done before or would do later and it seems that it was exactly that fact that drew him to it. It started out as a live TV play with an impressive cast—not just character actors Richard Pearson and Alison Leggatt, but John Laurie, Joan Hickson and Frank Finlay—and its author, N. F. Simpson, adapted it to the big screen himself.

It’s hard to even suggest what it’s about, because I’m still digesting how much of it, if any, has deeper meaning or whether it’s only meant to be meaningless. It revolves around the Groomkirby family, who might appear to someone who doesn’t know them to be a typically respectable bunch living in the suburbs. Arthur, whom everyone but his wife calls Mr. Groomkirby, is an accountant who works at a faceless corporate job. His wife Mabel is a housewife who juggles all the domestic duties you might expect. They’re both middle aged and they have two children: a young lady called Sylvia who’s courting a gentleman named Stan, and a son who seems to only go by Kirby. There’s also Aunt Mildred, who lives with them because she’s old enough to need help. Nothing to write home about. They seem to be ordinary in every way. Except, if we actually pay the slightest bit of attention, which we naturally do when we follow them into their semi-detached home, absolutely nothing about them is ordinary beyond their outward appearances.

Wednesday 3 May 2023

The Arena (1974)

Director: Steve Carver
Writers: John & Joyce Corrington
Stars: Margaret Markov and Pam Grier, Lucretia Love, Paul Muller, Daniel Vargas, Marie Louise, Mary Count and Sara Bay

Index: The First Thirty.

It shouldn’t seem too surprising to find Pam Grier making a peplum flick apparently out of nowhere, given that it’s not far off the Filipino women in prison movies she was shooting.

To be fair, part of that is because New World had it re-edited, by Joe Dante, future director of The Howling, Gremlins and The ’Burbs, in order to market it as “Black Slave White Slave”, as a way to build on the chemistry of the two leads in an earlier film, Black Mama White Mama. The other star is Margaret Markov.

Originally, however, it was an Italian movie with a third lead, Lucretia Love. I’ve only seen the beginning of the movie in Italian, showing us the capture by Roman soldiers of not only Bodicia, a druid priestess from Brittany clad in the purest white (Markov), and a lively Nubian dancer called Mamawi (Grier) in a leopard skin leotard, but also Deirdre, some drunken Irish redhead played by a Texan who married a pair of Europeans and died in the Seychelles. So an Italian gladiator movie makes sense, even if her part was whittled down to comic relief.

In either version, the Romans are recruiting slaves and these three, along with Livia, some sort of Roman noblewoman sold into slavery, soon show up on the auction block in Brindisi, back when it was called Brundisium. They’re bought en masse by an effete noble who seems very keen to point out that he won’t be doing anything with them because he’s gay. It seems weird to even point that out but it’s important to him, so I guess I’ll faithfully report it here.

Initially, this is as gratuitous as we expect it to be, with the usual women in prison shower scene showing bush as well as boobs, because, hey it’s European. However, once that’s out of the way, this tones down surprisingly much.