Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated Action/Adventure - Davey Collins ""

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Underrated Action/Adventure - Davey Collins

Davey Collins had the same misspent childhood that many of you did: Watching strange movies via late-night/Saturday afternoon television programming or VHS.  As he crawled into and back out of adolescence, he realized movies were the most important thing in his life and had taught him most of what he knew.  He ditched class and went to the library to read books about film noir and westerns.  He discovered some of his favorite filmmakers weren’t always the ones widely appreciated (“Where’s the Reginald Le Borg chapter?”).  His first appreciation of literature came about by tracking down and reading the source material for his favorite films.  He currently works in the hospitality racket and catches himself shining his ass from time to time by making allusions to old movies while mired in meetings.  Lately, he’s been getting together material for a print film zine entitled “Strange Illusions” which focuses primarily on budget-starved cinema of the 1930’s-1970’s.  He’s on Twitter @Davey_Wade.

Selecting five underrated Action/Adventure films proved to be especially difficult for me this past week.  While re-watching titles under consideration, I realized that many of them just didn’t work well enough for me anymore to champion them.  Like many other contributors so far (and there have been some exciting lists!!!), I cut my teeth on 80’s and early 90’s steroid-fueled action films.  When I was ten years old I saddled my bike and rode through the neighborhood, literally knocking door-to-door asking strangers if they had any Arnold movies.  The outside chance was that I’d be seeing Raw Deal that night. Though my tastes have changed, I still appreciate those batty entertainments.  But others have covered that ground much more thoroughly than I could.  For the purposes of this list, I left out serials (otherwise, you’d soon be reading about Daredevils of the Red Circle) as they are a different animal…and I really really tried to leave out kung-fu in hopes of possibly spurring on a future underrated film series.  The perfect Action/Adventure film resembles one of those men’s adventure magazine short stories. Very few films have gone there. Someone has already listed Dark of the Sun.  Maybe that comes the closest.

I feel really honored to be asked to contribute to Brian’s blog as I find him (and Rupert Pupkin Speaks) to be the most enthusiastic outlet there is for cinema.  The industry should award the guy; I know I’m not alone in thinking that.

We Were Strangers (1949)
In 1933 Cuba, John Garfield is soaked in his sweat, his white t-shirt filthy with cemetery soil and remnants of the decaying dead.  He sits down for a moment to rest.  To his equally tousled co-conspirators he is speaking of a philosophy that justifies their actions.  He is planning a heinous terrorist attack that will leave dozens of innocent people dead and scattered.  It’s not a heel-turn for Garfield; he’s the good guy.  As for you, the audience, you’re wound in conflict as you wish him success in it.  This is a John Huston film.  I don’t think that it’s hyperbole to call it one of his best.

This year at Noir City Austin I enjoyed a brief conversation in the Alamo Ritz lobby with film noir commandant Eddie Muller.  He was about to run The Breaking Point, that wonderful second interpretation of “To Have and Have Not” that lately seems to be gaining once elusive recognition.  But there’s another picture Garfield made in the same period that hasn’t attracted what I would deem its fair share of attention. 

After bringing up We Were Strangers to Mr. Muller, I paused, and very much like the innocent child in the “Daddy, what’s Vietnam” TV spot for Time-Life Books, I asked him “…Why don’t people ever talk about it?”  He replied “Because no one’s seen it!”

His answer shocked me.  That it’s a John Huston picture mandates it a look from the auteurists at least. Perhaps the more influential completists saw it at the end of a marathon Huston-session and passed out over the credit sequence:  Agee scarcely mentions it in his famous Huston-worship; Andrew Stevens ignores it altogether in his Huston-thrashing.

Be it that anti-Huston wave that seems to come and go, or long-time scarcity (somewhat remedied by a 2005 DVD release), regardless of the reason for its relative obscurity, the picture demands to be seen.  When one considers the American political climate under which it was produced, it becomes a rather bold work. Huston here is balling his fists at Batista; giving him the glare that fighters exchange prior to a bout.

We Were Strangers makes for difficult classification.  I first ran across it in an appendix labeled “Miscellaneous Dramas and Oddities” in Spencer Selby’s “Dark City:  The Film Noir.” It does have some noir sensibilities, but it doesn’t quite wedge its way into that movement.  The video store I own and operate in Shangri-La will file this under Action/Adventure.  It has violent machine-gun battles, and one of the most grueling tunnel-digging sequences in history (who reading is not up for tunnel-burrowing sequences?) wherein our protagonists must cut through the poor section of a cemetery to reach their mark, digging through putrid decomposing remains.

I’m not much for the recounting of a movie’s plot as I feel any artful way to do so would get at undermining a viewing.  The individual sequences here illustrate a clear enough picture anyway.  The anger being expressed is laid out fairly quickly as a subversive student is gunned down on university steps by the face of the corrupt regime:  Pedro Armend├íriz’ murderous enforcer.  In cinema, introducing the opposition to a villain, the heroes, is as standard as turning on the camera.  But here the small assembly of rebels don’t plan revenge on one wicked man.  “Twenty, thirty, maybe a hundred” innocent people face violent death alongside the hierarchy of the regime.  The moral dilemma of such is dealt to us in stark dialogue.  This is the underlying dramatic motor even when it is agreed upon by the principals as dismally justified.

The work displayed by John Garfield comes as if effortless.  He pulls off the type of cool that doesn’t need a signature cigarette-drag or some iconic wardrobe element.  Seeing him during a recent re-watch, I found myself really grieving that his death would come only a few years later. What a total and devastating loss for our culture.  The entertaining performance of Gilbert Roland (whom by the way I loved in Last of the Fast Guns…thanks to Blake Lucas for the recommend), while rooted in the classic Hollywood tradition, manages to ring true to the spirit of his character among the more subtle ensemble of rebels surrounding him.

I’m not forgetting about Jennifer Jones.  She’s an actress I’ve frankly underappreciated until recently.  Her Duel in the Sun role is not all histrionics--it’s thrilling movie-acting. In We Were Strangers she exhibits a restrained interpretation of a tough, haunted woman who seamlessly becomes a revolutionary.  She’s weary and naturally beautiful, never looking like a starlet stepping from the makeup trailer.  She and Huston don’t make that mistake (which is still being committed today).

Jennifer Jones, machine-gun stock buried in her shoulder.  Gritting her bared teeth, one eye squints in determination as she empties a clip at the policia.

The Savage Five (1974)
I never considered Werner Herzog’s comment about Jean-Luc Godard to be so much an insult to the new wave icon as it was an appreciation of the much maligned kung-fu cinema of the 1970’s.  Actually he more-or-less confirms this himself on the same page that quote is derived from (the book “Herzog on Herzog”).  Kung-fu movies operate in the same dimension as the musical and the porn film.  And as in both, when the film can bring more than furious fight-choreography, hot sex, or imaginative song and dance…it can 
be transcendent.  I want to use the word “Art.”  You can try to convince me not to.

Chang Cheh doesn’t require introduction from me.  He deserves the accolades he gets.  You may have read comparisons to Siegel or Peckinpah, and one wouldn’t have to stretch too far to agree (for my money, the climax of Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung is the most impressive ode to human fury in the history of cinema…surpassing The Wild Bunch’s iconic shootout).  One difference is that Chang Cheh was a machine; a prolific craftsman with enough directorial credits to fill a mile’s length of Buddhist scroll.  The downside is that if you get on a Chang Cheh kick, his themes are going to get repetitive fast.  That’s why it’s important that we don’t miss any of his key works.  One that shouldn’t be overlooked is 1974’s The Savage Five.

I feel comfortable listing this in an Action/Adventure list because while it is definitely a kung-fu movie, it isn’t ABOUT kung-fu.  It’s pretty early-in-the-game in its classic action film scenario:  A town is taken over by a ruthless gang of criminals leaving it to a group of men from different walks to join forces in effort to drive them out. Sure, kung-fu is used but so is the weaponry of various trades (wood-chopping axes for instance).  All of Cheh’s themes are present (brotherhood chiefly among them), but characterization is what earns this a standout notice. 

The titular Savage Five (Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kuan-Tai, Li Hsiu-Hsien, Wang Chung) are richly drawn by Cheh and longtime (and unheralded) collaborator I Kuang. Admittedly this is a genre populated by vengeful cardboard champions, but what we’re given in The Savage Five are real emotions and stories. When our heroes do overcome their faults and adversities to face unfavorable odds, we feel what we do in the best action films:  Involved, completely out-of-body.  There are some interesting fights and creative bits of gory violence throughout, sure….and it’s all entertaining, but these characters stuck to my ribs. I thought about them for days after watching.  It also doesn’t hurt that Chen Kuan-Tai is my all-time movie hero.

It’s Chang Cheh…so people are going to die standing up.  That’s the way for me.

Ladies Crave Excitement (1935)
Nat Levine’s Mascot Pictures, best known for their serials and low-budget westerns, is a pretty interesting little story.  I’ve never found their output to be bottom-of-the-barrel; they employed a stable of competent talent and their serials are up there with the best of the Thirties (dig Tom Mix in Miracle Rider).  I’m always up for a Mascot Picture.

Ladies Crave Excitement is a real gem.  What a great premise it has: The badass of the piece is a newsreel cameraman who puts himself in danger’s grip for his work:  Giant demolitions, cities crumbling over Earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.  It has a great title sequence, snappy editing (courtesy of Joseph H. Lewis), and the full-effort of a game cast led by future Orson Welles collaborator Norman Foster.  It all plays out in episodic beats as if a shrunken serial.

You know those boring under-cranked car chases in serials?  Not here.  For once the cars actually look like they are opened up on back roads.  Some clever camera work and editing (again, Joseph H. Lewis) creates a real sense of movement and speed. The whole movie races this way: Forward and fast.  Composition is slightly offbeat, never letting the brain quite settle in.

Plus, Norman Foster really knows how to move; he puts all he’s got into putting on a jacket (I need to seek out more of his stuff).  The whole film knows how to move.  Highly recommended to any fan of crackerjack 30’s Hollywood.

The Gun Runners (1958)
There are already two classic adaptations of “To Have and Have Not” to pick from.  Go ahead and watch them as a double-featch. Admit that however unfaithful to Hemingway, the Hawks film is flawless entertainment and unpretentious movie art.  We’ll all agree when you come out of The Breaking Point unable to cork your excitement.  Both justify your love of old movies, the love that earns you the skepticism of your date as she/he browses the shelves housing your disc collection.

So why go to bat for this low-budget and unnecessary third interpretation? Siegel didn’t (“Who do I have to fuck to get off this picture?”).  Siegel’s chapter on the film in his autobiography details his constant revolting against the very idea.  His tune changes a tad when he learns Eddie Albert is cast to play the scumbag. 

I like Audie Murphy as a screen presence, but cannot explain why. Maybe it’s because he can’t act, but he also can’t lie (that quality goes over better in his westerns).  But this is Eddie Albert’s movie anyway (he was on a real roll at this time having come off of Aldrich’s Attack and Huston’s The Roots of Heaven). Eddie Albert is on screen and Siegel is just letting him rip.  He does the hell out of everything.  He wears the hell out of his clothes.  He says the hell out of his lines.  You know his character from crime and adventure paperbacks:  He’s the guy with stiff wavy blonde hair lounging against the wall with a cocktail while the femme fatale shoves some poor guy off the balcony or he’s in the jungle blazing a depraved grin while manhandling a sexy native.  There’s a dialog scene with him and Murphy where he can’t be bothered to stop working his abs with V-crunches on a bed.  Audie doesn’t have a chance.  Lloyd Bridges in Try and Get Me is the only guy who ever got more out this type of thing. 

On display is that appealing Siegel style.  Deceptively straight-forward if you fail to realize how difficult it is to make interesting pictures time and time again.  Oh, Jack Elam is here again and he’s panicking.

Ten Seconds to Hell (1959)
Really, I don’t need to state any opinions to sell you on this.  So I don’t think that I will.  I’ll just list some facts here.  This is a Hammer/UFA co-production directed by Robert Aldrich.  It stars Jack Palance, Jeff Chandler, and Alrdrich regular Wesley Addy.  They play members of a German bomb disposal unit charged with diffusing unexploded bombs buried within infrastructure of war-torn Berlin.

They are very aware that some or all of them will be blown to hell.  They deal with that reality in cavalier fashion, betting among themselves who will outlive whom.  They even agree to pool half of their pay to be divvied up among the survivors…if any.  Palance broods.  Aldrich keeps that face in close-up whenever there’s the chance.

If you’re not sold, what else can I say?  You’ve seen an Aldrich picture before.  You know his attitudes.  He’s the guy I hire to do that perfect men’s adventure story.  And it would star Jack Palance as a mercenary trekking some jungle hell.  He’d brood and men would die all around.  Then, just as things were looking up, he’d contract some rare fever and come unhinged, screaming his last words as his best friend Ralph Meeker is forced to bury a bayonet in his ribs.


Blake Lucas said...

A classic, Davey! This may be the most I've ever enjoyed a piece here and there have been so many good ones. It would have been great just for that last paragraph alone, describing that never made but so easy to imagine Aldrich movie.

There was something you wrote that I especially enjoyed because of my own experience. I once started going with a woman and took her to an old movie--it was OUT OF THE PAST no less. You'd think anyone would be eternally grateful for that but she seemed more bemused that I cared about it so much. And the next time I wanted to take her to another one, she scornfully said "I suppose it's in black and white." That relationship didn't last long.

Needless to say, I'm really glad I got you on to a movie you had not seen before and liked. Thanks for saying so. And thanks for a great piece.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Blake! Your saying that makes my day!

It's funny because I've shown Out of the Past to several girls (never as an intentional litmus... it's my favorite movie) and have never gotten the reaction I hoped for.

Always on the lookout for your work! The Last Posse is another film you prompted me to finally track down and I admired the hell out of it!

Thanks again.