Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Silent Stranger aka The Stranger In Japan

MGM released the Italian westerns A STRANGER IN TOWN and THE STRANGER RETURNS in the United States in 1967 to good box office. Good enough for the studio to order another sequel from producer Allen Klein, the controversial manager of the Beatles, and producer/writer/star Tony Anthony. Perhaps judging that the eccentricities of the two previous films helped them stand out among the glut of spaghetti westerns filling drive-ins, Anthony, Klein, and director Luigi Vanzi doubled down, sending Anthony’s anti-hero The Stranger to Japan.

As an unconscious tribute to both the Japanese setting and The Stranger’s debt to Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, THE SILENT STRANGER is a riff on YOJIMBO, which also inspired the plot of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. The Stranger shoots down some bandits attacking a young Japanese man. The dying youth hands him a scroll and begs him to deliver it to Japan, where he will be paid $20,000. Once The Stranger gets there, he finds two opposing factions laying claim to the scroll, which is worth one million U.S. dollars, and plays each against the other to ensure his own hide survives. A nearsighted but nasty American (Lloyd Battista) is aligned with one side and against The Stranger too.

Plagued with stormy weather, Vanzi uses the Japanese setting to strong effect, as it provides a unique backdrop for the typical spaghetti trappings (swords replace guns in some action scenes). MGM’s generous budget allowed for more extras, elaborate sets, and another evocative Stelvio Cipriani score. The typhoons may have been a frustrating problem for Vanzi and Anthony, but the rain looks great on film. If the filmmakers’ intent was to do something original in a well-worn genre, they succeeded, while still providing crowd-pleasing scoops of violence. Anthony is a stiff performer, but he gives the amoral Stranger an underdog quality that puts the audience on his side.

Though lensed in Japan in 1968, legal wranglings and studio politics prevented MGM from releasing it in America until 1975, by which time who gave a damn about spaghetti westerns or Tony Anthony. Cut (sometimes awkwardly) to achieve a PG rating, THE SILENT STRANGER popped up under several titles, including THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, SAMURAI ON A HORSE, and THE HORSEMAN AND THE SAMURAI. In the meantime, Anthony and Battista teamed up again as rivals in BLINDMAN, which co-starred Klein’s client Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandit.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The Stranger Returns

Star Tony Anthony, who also contributed the story, returns—just like the title says—in this sequel to A STRANGER IN TOWN. Like the first film, THE STRANGER RETURNS was released in the U.S. by MGM in 1968, just four months after the original. While influenced by Sergio Leone’s westerns with Clint Eastwood, director Luigi Vanzi and Anthony add more humor and vulnerability to the leading character (he uses a pink parasol to keep the sun’s rays at bay), making him easy to root for, even when he’s acting like a scoundrel.

The Stranger poses as a murdered postal inspector to track a large gang of bandits led by the vicious En Plein (Dan Vadis, then a European star from many muscleman epics). The killers dry-gulched a stagecoach crew and made off with the entire rig, thought to be carrying a strongbox filled with gold. In actuality, the stagecoach is made of gold, which is a heckuva target for The Stranger and his nose for money. The bounty hunter teams up with a batty old preacher (Marco Guglielmi) with a pocketful of fireworks, who provides The Stranger with a super-cool weapon: a rotating four-barreled shotgun!

Starting with Stelvio Cipriani’s awesome score, THE STRANGER RETURNS is the most consistently entertaining of the four-film STRANGER series. Vanzi shoots the violent climax with some wit, as The Stranger invades the bandits’ town and blows them away one at a time. As usual, he takes plenty of physical punishment before laying some smack down on the baddies, who are well led by the sneering Vadis, somewhat leaner than his days making Italian sword-and-sandal pictures like SPARTACUS AND THE TEN GLADIATORS and HERCULES THE INVINCIBLE. Interesting is the unearthly vibe Vanzi and Cipriani provide for the golden stagecoach, really playing up its status as an oddball plot point.

Anthony moved on to THE STRANGER IN JAPAN, but legal problems kept it out of the United States until 1975, by which time spaghetti westerns were passé. However, he made another Italian western during that time, BLINDMAN with Ringo Starr, and teamed up again with Ringo (as producer) for the unusual COMETOGETHER, which had nothing to do with the Beatles.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Stranger In Town

West Virginia-born Tony Anthony (née Roger Pettito) was a struggling actor in bit parts before he moved to Europe and found great success as the star of several so-called “spaghetti westerns”—Italian productions usually filmed on Roman soundstages and in the Spanish desert. A STRANGER IN TOWN, which was actually shot entirely in Italy, received a major theatrical release in the U.S. in 1968 by MGM and made enough money worldwide to bring Anthony back for three sequels.

The plot is simple and a bit reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, which is no coincidence. A Bounty Hunter With No Name (aka The Stranger, played by Anthony) rides into the tiny Mexican village of Cerro Gordo, where he ingratiates himself with bandits led by Aguila (Frank Wolff), who plans to impersonate Mexican soldiers and hijack two sacks of gold from the United States Army. The heist is successful, but a doublecross and a nearly fatal beating set up the blood-soaked climax staged by director Luigi Vanzi (THE STRANGER RETURNS) on the Cinecitta backlot. There is hardly any dialogue, and it’s ironic that one of the sequels — a chattier film than this one — was titled THE SILENT STRANGER.

Though an odd choice for a western anti-hero — he isn’t particularly charismatic, but he pulls off grubby well — Anthony somehow manages to be likable, even while doing unsavory acts on-screen. He’s good with self-effacing humor (granted, not so much in A STRANGER IN TOWN than in the sequels), and plays the underdog well, which likely explains his popularity. Certainly A STRANGER IN TOWN lacks the typical Hollywood gloss, even though it was produced by Beatles manager Allen Klein.

Sergio Leone not only influenced the plot, credited to Warren Garfield (THE HIGH CHAPARRAL) and Giuseppe Mangione (SUGAR COLT), but also Vanzi’s deliberate pacing. Anthony slowly wanders the town of Cerro Gordo (“fat hill” — also a small town in downstate Illinois), but when the action comes, it’s exciting and well choreographed. Benedetto Ghiglia’s oddball score isn’t exactly what you would call melodic, but it fits Vanzi’s weird vibe, and you’ll be humming the theme out of repetition, if not affection.

Anthony had a strong hand in his movie career, contributing the story for his next movie, THE STRANGER RETURNS, and producing and writing THE SILENT STRANGER, an unusual western set in Japan that didn’t see release in the United States until 1975. Anthony also served as producer and star of BLINDMAN (a spaghetti western riff on Japan’s popular Zatoichi character) and COMIN’ AT YA!, a 3D western that was a surprise hit and kicked off a mini-resurgence of 3D cheapies (such as FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3 and JAWS 3-D) in 1982. Also in there was GET MEAN, the fourth and final Stranger story.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

The Keep

The second film directed by Michael Mann is also his most obscure, sandwiched between the very good THIEF (1981) and MANHUNTER (1986). THE KEEP is Mann’s lone horror film, and is based on a best seller by F. Paul Wilson, who disliked Mann’s film as much as most audiences and critics did. A troubled production plagued by reshoots, cost overruns, and Mann’s indecision, THE KEEP was a flop for Paramount. Everyone seems to like the Tangerine Dream score though.

Nazis commanded by Jurgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT) occupy a keep located in the Carpathians in 1941. The caretaker (W. Morgan Sheppard) warns Prochnow that nobody spends the night inside the keep, which is protected by 108 nickel crosses embedded in its stone walls. Prochnow ignores the caretaker’s warnings, but notes the walls appear to be constructed to keep something in, not prevent someone from entering. Several Germans are killed, and cruel SS man Gabriel Byrne (MILLER’S CROSSING) arrives to take command and murder some villagers in retaliation.

Byrne brings in Jewish professor Ian McKellen (X-MEN) and McKellen’s daughter Alberta Watson (THE SOLDIER) from a concentration camp to investigate. Periodically, screenwriter/director Mann cuts to top-billed Scott Glenn (THE RIGHT STUFF) riding a motorcycle. More Germans are killed, including two who are attempting to rape Watson. She’s rescued by what appears to be a talking eight-foot skull-faced Golem with glowing eyes that is surrounded by smoke.

Perhaps Mann’s original three-hour version made sense, but Paramount’s mandated 96-minute cut is frankly incomprehensible. This is best illustrated in the scene in which Glenn arrives in the village, doesn’t identify himself or his reasons for coming, and one scene later is on the floor in an acrobatic both-sides-sitting-up sex scene with Watson. Surely, Mann shot some footage of Glenn and Watson actually, you know, interacting before making love, which otherwise makes no sense in context.

Though THE KEEP flails in its storytelling and acting (this may be McKellen’s only poor screen performance), it is nonetheless watchable. The Welsh locations and sets designed on London soundstages are striking, and who can resist Scott Glenn and a monster in a rubber suit shooting animated death rays at each other? As pretentious as it is choppy and packed with too many shots of people wandering around in slow motion, THE KEEP is an interesting failure and an unusual anomaly in Michael Mann’s filmography.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Drive (1998)

About as close to a rock-'em-sock-'em Asian action movie as a low-budget American production can get, DRIVE is one of the greatest American martial-arts films ever made. The startling fight sequences staged by director Steve Wang (THE GUYVER) and his stunt coordinator Koichi Sakamoto's Alpha Stunt team are unlike any you’ve seen staged outside of Hong Kong. Presented with grace, humor, and sharp visual wit, DRIVE is a terrific film.

So why haven't you heard of it? The producers took DRIVE away from Wang in post-production, cut several minutes out of it (mostly character stuff that adds humanity to the fighting scenes), commissioned a new electronic score, and bypassed a theatrical release, dumping it straight to cable, VHS, and DVD in 1998. While both the 99-minute U.S. version and Wang's longer original 112-minute cut are wonderful films, the perfect version would be somewhere in between lengthwise and use the more conventional score that Wang commissioned.

DRIVE is set in the near future and stars Mark Dacascos (archvillain Wo Fat on the HAWAII FIVE-0 remake) as Toby Wong, a Chinese man running from his former employers in Hong Kong, the Leung Corporation, which implanted a "bio-engine" into his chest which gives him enhanced speed, strength, and fighting ability. However, he doesn't want it—he was an unwilling experiment—and is journeying to Los Angeles to sell the implant to Leung's main competitor.

On Toby's trail are Leung's squad of assassins, led by Vic Madison (John Pyper-Ferguson, memorable as a comic heavy on THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR.), who are assigned to stop him from reaching L.A. without killing him, since their employer wants the bio-engine in one piece. After escaping a pair of attacks in San Francisco, Toby makes the unlikely acquaintance of Malik Brody (A DIFFERENT WORLD's Kadeem Hardison), a divorced, unemployed songwriter who would rather be almost anywhere but handcuffed to a kung-fu-fighting stranger while bullets, rockets, and explosions whiz past his head.

Toby and Malik run into constant trouble, setting the stage for a series of well-executed martial-arts battles, including one pitting Dacascos against several guys armed with cattle prods and another set in a tacky neon desert bar with an outer space theme, complete with giant rocket ship. Although DRIVE cost only around $4 million, the miniatures and pyrotechnics are skillfully rendered, and the non-stop action is a certain crowd-pleaser.

Dacascos does most of his acting with his feet and fists, but he's a solid leading man, while Hardison, at first difficult to take as a typical wisecracking, loudmouthed comic-relief sidekick, grows on you by the end, where he proves he can pull his own weight. Pyper-Ferguson hams it up well enough to distract you from the fact that his stunt double doesn't look a lot like him. Brittany Murphy (DON'T SAY A WORD) is goofy as a brain-dead teenage nympho with the unlikely name of Deliverance Bodine and the hots for Hardison.

Filmed around Lancaster, California as ROAD TO RUIN, DRIVE is an energetic breath of fresh air in the direct-to-video action realm, and shouldn't be overlooked just because it wasn't deemed "good" enough to play in theaters.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Devil's Partner

Ed Nelson, who went on to play nice guy doctor Mike Rossi on TV’s PEYTON PLACE for five years, plays two roles in this independent horror movie. First, he’s crusty old Pete Jenson, a rotten jackass who makes a deal with the Devil and then drops dead. Then, Nelson shows up as Jensen’s nephew, Nick Richards, who arrives in a small desert town to clean up his uncle’s affair.

Almost immediately, bad things start happening to people, like the kindly gentleman who is poisoned by goat’s milk, the drunk (Byron Foulger) who is trampled by a horse, and handsome gas station owner David Simpson (ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER star Richard Crane), who is disfigured when attacked by his dog. When an embittered David grows apart from his sweet girlfriend Nell (Jean Allison), Nick starts moving in. Of course, the twist will come as no surprise, and DEVIL’S PARTNER has little point beyond a series of sinister accidents and the befuddled investigating of the local sheriff (Spencer Carlisle) and town doc (Edgar “Uncle Joe” Buchanan).

Penned by one-and-done screenwriter Laura Jean Mathews and actor Stanley Clemens, who replaced Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys movies after Gorcey retired, DEVIL’S PARTNER was directed by Charles R. Rondeau. After making four low-budget features, Rondeau permanently left features for television and made hundreds of episodes of shows ranging from BATMAN to BJ AND THE BEAR. His television work is undistinguished, but he probably cared more about this film, which is competently directed and occasionally chilling.

Nelson, who played dozens of heavies in episodic guest shots, is convincingly menacing and friendly, whichever the scene calls for. He got a nice “And Introducing” credit, even though he had already acted in several films, some for Roger Corman. Speaking of, Filmgroup, an independent company owned by producer brothers Gene and Roger Corman, released DEVIL’S PARTNER in 1961 — three years after it was made — to play on a double bill with CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, which Roger directed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Superman (1978)

Though Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s comic book creation had been seen on film many times before — in serials, in cartoons, in George Reeve’s iconic television portrayal — for the first time, Superman was exciting, relatable, and believable. In SUPERMAN, directed by THE OMEN’s Richard Donner, you finally believed a man can fly.

Warner Brothers’ epic blockbuster, which ran more than three hours in its 1981 ABC prime-time airing, boasts a screenplay by five Hollywood heavyweights — Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), married team David (BONNIE AND CLYDE) and Leslie Newman, novelist Mario Puzo (THE GODFATHER), and Tom Mankiewicz (LIVE AND LET DIE), whose father Joseph wrote and directed ALL ABOUT EVE. The film mostly soars on the star-making performance of unknown Christopher Reeve, whose boyish charm encapsulates the false milquetoast bumbling of Clark Kent and the witty confidence of the World’s Mightiest Mortal.

While SUPERMAN suffers from juvenile comic relief and weak plotting — mostly due to producer Ilya Salkind, Alexander Salkind, and Pierre Spengler’s choice to shoot it and its sequel simultaneously, which led to furious reshooting and re-editing to get SUPERMAN into theaters before SUPERMAN II was finished — it’s a glorious adventure film with Oscar-winning visual effects and an outstanding Oscar-nominated score by John Williams that ranks with STAR WARS as the finest of his career.

Donner lets the film unfold at a comfortable pace, beginning on the planet Krypton, where Jor-El (Marlon Brando) and Lara (Susannah York) place their baby boy Kal-El into a rocket and shoot him to Earth just before their home explodes. Found by Kansas farmers Jonathan (an affecting Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter) and adopted as their son Clark, Kal (played as a teenager by Jeff East) is reared with Midwestern values. As a young adult, Reeve’s Clark moves to Metropolis and joins the staff of the Daily Planet, working alongside aggressive reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) and copy boy Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure) for martinet editor Perry White (Jackie Cooper).

It takes awhile for the plot to kick in after Donner’s successful scene-setting and world-building, but he thankfully has the nimble acting skills of the great Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION) to introduce it. Hackman’s delightfully sinister Lex Luthor’s plan to become a rich man involves destroying California with a nuclear missile, which will make his previously worthless desert property the United States’ new West Coast. Aiding Luthor are bumbling assistant Otis (Ned Beatty) and sexy moll Eve Teschmacher (Valerie Perrine), whose conscience will be Luthor’s downfall.

A massive box office hit — forty years later, it still ranked among the Top 50 domestic grosses of all time — and beloved by audiences of all ages, thanks in no small measure to Reeve’s relatable Superman and the remarkable flying effects, SUPERMAN led to three sequels starring Reeve, as well as the spinoff SUPERGIRL, which starred Helen Slater (THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN) as Superman’s Kryptonian cousin. Since 1987’s abysmal SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, Hollywood has brought Superman to life several times on the small and large screens, but never with the same sense of wonder and excitement as Donner’s 1978 classic.

The Slave Market Of Mucar

Until I found this paperback in a Chicago used book store, I had no idea a series of prose novels starring Lee Falk's legendary comic strip hero The Phantom even existed. It turns out Avon published fifteen Phantom novels from 1972 to 1975. Falk himself wrote five of them with ghosts (who didn't receive cover credit) penning the remaining ten.

The second book, THE SLAVE MARKET OF MUCAR, was written by Basil Copper, whose career includes a lot of horror and crime fiction. It isn't an original story. Falk originally wrote "The Slave Market of Mucar" as a story arc in the daily newspaper strip that Sy Barry was then drawing. As a matter of fact, "Mucar" was Barry's debut on the PHANTOM strip. It ran 25 weeks in newspapers across the U.S. from August 21st, 1961 to February 10th, 1962. So it probably seemed fresh to readers when Avon presented it in prose form in 1972.

The Phantom is summoned to Bengalla by the local Jungle Patrol commander, Colonel Weeks. It seems dozens of prisoners have recently escaped (in smaller bunches) from the local prison run by Warden Saldan. Not only have none been recaptured, but none have ever been seen again. Weeks' attempt to place an undercover man, Slingsby, in the prison backfires, and Saldan is uncooperative. Well, of course. Because he and his chief guard, Larsen, are tricking the prisoners into escaping, only to recapture them immediately and transport them to Mucar to be sold as slaves. Surprisingly, there's a large market for male slaves, though you would think females would be more valuable. Or perhaps Falk didn't want to get into anything so sordid.

The Phantom (also the star of a 1996 film starring Billy Zane) recruits Slingsby as backup, along with his pet wolf Devil, who gets an incredibly heroic showdown against a pair of nasty mastiffs. The Phantom goes undercover in the Mucar slave market (mask and all) to rescue the latest batch of prisoners and seal Saldan's fate, which he does with a masterful sting operation worth of the IMF.

Copper's writing isn't flashy, but it's great storytelling. I suspect he didn't deviate much from the original Falk/Barry storyline, delivering a straightforward story of desert heroics and adventure. The Phantom doesn't come off as a fully rounded character, though with 35 years of history behind him at the time this book was published, perhaps it was expected that most readers would be familiar with the character. A lot of what we learn about the Phantom is through the eyes of Slingsby and Weeks, who considering The Ghost Who Walks something of a demigod.

Avon's painted cover is pretty great.