Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '75 - James David Patrick ""

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Underrated '75 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong habit of obsessive movie watching. His current project, #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project can be found at thejamesbondsocialmediaproject.com. Find him on twitter at @007hertzrumble.
Check out his Underrated '85 list too:http://www.rupertpupkinspeaks.com/2015/03/underrated-james-david-patrick.html
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Jaws. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nashville. Dog Day Afternoon. Rocky Horror Picture Show. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Barry Lyndon. Also consider the quality of the B-pictures and exploitation flicks also released in 1975. Rollerball. Death Race 2000. A Boy and His Dog. Argento's Deep Red. Just a massive list of amazing films, a banner year for fans of cinema. As I was scouring the list of films from 1975 I found it rather difficult to assemble a list of movies that weren't highly regarded by some faction or another. Would another vote for Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze as a guilty pleasure really matter in the grand scheme of things? Rather than stare at this list any longer I settled down in front of my own DVD shelves, checking dates, searching for some 1975 gems without the aid of some arbitrary movie site's rankings to help me decide which films were underseen or undervalued. I found about 12 that fit the bill. I whittled that list down to these following five... plus some bonus picks all the way down at the end because I just can't help myself. 



Rancho Deluxe (1975; Frank Perry)
"I don't know what they shot this steer with, but they blew a hole in him big enough that you can throw a cat through.

Rancho Deluxe has all the makings of a cult film without any of the ballyhoo. This is the decadence of the traditional cinematic Western. Why doesn't Rancho Deluxe get its due hyperbolic praise? Perhaps the film lacks a specific genre. It's part teen comedy, part satire, part Western dystopia viewed through the sepia-colored nostalgia that still romanticizes the ideologies of the Old West. 

Through the perspective of two young Montana misfits (Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston), Rancho Deluxe views the West as a comedy of overidentified ways and means. The cattle farmers and ranchers living high on the hog from merely "showing bulls" and reveling in their pre-existing wealth (without actually doing any farming). So bored that they're hunting petty cattle rustlers because they've got no other way to fill their days. The youth growing up in this modern frontier without education or potential employment torment the cattle barons "for sport." There's a brothel scene, pot smoking, very un-PC bits of dialogue (Mexican Overdrive = neutral), the old steer in the motel room gag, and a conversation filmed only in the reflection on the glass of a Pong video game machine. 

In addition to the cracking dialogue and clever cinematography, Rancho Deluxe boasts sweeping Big Sky landscapes. The clear testament to this film's underratedness: the dark and muddy DVD is now only available via a BOD service through Amazon and there seems to be no hope for a Blu-ray. This movie begs for some tender loving restoration and a high-definition presentation. Those mountain ranges should really pop when they're not smeared with the Vaseline tears of forgotten cinema.

The impressive ensemble of character actors includes Clifton James (the infamous Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the James Bond films Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun), Slim Pickens, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Bright, and Elizabeth Ashley among other familiar faces. Even Jimmy Buffett and Warren Oates stop by for a brief bar band performance.

When the film strays from the central hijinks of rustlers vs. cattle barons, the melodrama briefly taxes the film's forward progress, but that's hardly enough to saddle Rancho Deluxe for long. Roger Ebert hated Rancho Deluxe. Reading his review, I can't help but think he, like many other contemporary critics, missed the point of the film. Maybe Rancho Deluxe was a little too jokey at times to see clearly the depth and sly wickedness, but it's precisely that blend of contrasting humor and melancholy that sets it apart. 



Zorro (1975; Duccio Tessari)
I'm not quite sure when I first saw Duccio Tessari's 1975 version of Zorro starring Alain Delon. I do know a few things for certain: I was pretty young. Was it on TV? Did my parents have a VHS? I went on a fact-finding mission. They don't remember this film at all. Nonetheless, I'm quite convinced this my first version of Zorro and my first Alain Delon film. These facts led to some interesting realizations over the course of my ongoing cinematic education. 

Upon first watching Le Cercle Rouge: "Is that Zorro?" 

Upon first watching Antonio Banderas in The Mask of Zorro: "This movie takes itself far too seriously."

The average human with even a moderate cinematic IQ would have questioned what the hell Alain Delon was doing playing Zorro and most likely considered the reincarnation of Zorro in the 1990s to be a broad m√álange of genre tropes that boasted no greater aspirations that being really good at selling popcorn. In other words, not especially serious at all. That's how much 1975's Zorro warped my perception of the character. 

Tessari's Zorro remains an odd duck in the masked hero's lineage, which began all the way back with Douglas Fairbanks in 1920's The Mark of Zorro. It seems as though Tessari set out to make a similarly thrilling adventure film. Swash is buckled, and women are wooed and rescued, but somewhere along the way, Tessari ended up making a kitschy, foppish, joke of a movie.  

Zorro is not a prime example of filmmaking prowess. On a number of occasions Tessari had to insert bizarre, unplanned jump cuts. I can only assume he had to make up for poor coverage or horrendous dubbing. He also often shoots through foregrounded objects that obscure the actors. (Did he have no better options in post?) Add into the mix a series of mickey-moused pratfalls, a mute sidekick who communicates with bizarre squeaks and gesticulations, and a bumbling antagonist less fearsome than your average unmasked Scooby Doo villain. In case you missed where I was going here, this is undoubtedly a plug for Awesomeful cinema. While Martin Campbell's 1998 Mask of Zorro managed to entertain with a wide birth but without much filmmaking derring-do, Tessari and Delon have created such a confounding mess that I can't help but enjoy myself. Without irony even. 

Fans of Alain Delon, thespian, will marvel at how he found himself in such a film (and clearly having a grand time of it all). He leaps from rooftop to rooftop and dispatches legions of inept soldiers with a flick of his wrist. Even more fun was had prancing around as his alter ego, the grandly bewigged and positively fabulous governor. 

Then there's that theme song. Composed by Oliver Onions, aka Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, "Zorro Is Back" enjoyed some more modern notoriety in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. The tune is a jarring, out-of-place/out-of-time slice of contemporary (and repetitive!) puffery that cannot really be contextualized outside the whole bizarre enterprise that is 1975's Zorro. I can't recommend Zorro to everyone, but if you read all of that and remain intrigued, maybe you can be a fan of bonkers Zorro too. 



Smile (1975; Michael Ritchie)
While Michael Ritchie's Smile might be well regarded, it's definitely underseen. This gem deserves to be mentioned not only in the great comedies of the decade but also among the great comedies of all time. As a satire of the beauty pageant industry, Smile resists the temptation to point and laugh at the witless contestants and instead turns the lens on the America that fosters such an absurd display of prancing, preening and pretension. 

While more recent attempts to update the genre such as Drop Dead Gorgeous and Miss Congeniality have focused largely on the bad behavior or vapidity of the contestants and their families, Smile allows the female contestants to be real, three-dimensional characters with dreams (although misdirected). The bite of the satire therefore comes from the malicious and deviant characters that host the pageant competition, aka everyone. A trademark of 1970's cinema was the willingness to indict the viewer in the conspiracy. Smile performed this feat so deftly that the viewer is left laughing while feeling this measure of guilt. 

Bruce Dern, as he tends to do, turns in a pitch-perfect performance alongside Barbara Feldon and Michael Kidd as contest coordinators. Melanie Griffith makes one of her earliest big-screen appearances as a Young American Miss contestant. Screenwriter Jerry Belson had his hand in seemingly every major television series of the 1960's including The Lucy Show, I Spy, The Dick Van Dyke Show and later the Odd Couple and The Tracey Ullman Show. Though his film resume doesn't nearly compare (unless you count Smokey and the Bandit II), Smile remains the one brilliant cinematic feather in his cap.



Hustle (1975; Robert Aldrich)
I couldn't submit an Underrated list to Rupert Pupkin Speaks without a Burt Reynolds flick now could I? (I even had a choice between Hustle and At Long Last Love!) Robert Aldrich's 1975 neo-noir is antithetical to our idea of a Burt Reynolds movie... and as a result perversely entertaining. Contrary to its title, Hustle proceeds at an almost languid pace, focusing on character and motivation as Burt skirts and evades our expectations.

Co-starring Catherine Deneuve as a high-class prostitute (and as hot and steamy as ever), one might expect the pairing of the sultry French actress and Burt Reynolds' American everyman to be an oil-and-vinegar situation. The result of this coupling, on the other hand, is a low and slow smolder. Burt Reynolds plays a cop (of course) investigating a dead girl washed up on the beach. Oh, I know what you're thinking: "The old dead-girl-on-the-beach routine again?" It's not the facts that make Hustle worth watching - it's the way it all unfolds, oozing with cynicism and modern malaise that still resonates. We didn't leave that malaise behind with the plaid slacks of the 1970's. This is a flawed character struggling towards resolution in a world that would rather thwart even the most righteous. 

Frank De Vol's (4-time Academy Award nominee) excellent score pairs well the offbeat rhythms, and a sublime list of supporting actors rounds out the cast. Familiar faces include Ben Johnson, Paul Winfield (always a solid supporting player), Eileen Brennan, Eddie Albert and Ernest Borgnine. Daisy Duke (Catherine Bach) even shows up briefly as a porn star. Her appearance left me stammering "It's... it's... it's..." without being able to procure either "Daisy Duke" or "Catherine Bach" from the scattered neurological filing system. Robert Englund and Fred Willard even show up for bit parts. Their names I remembered.

The Reynolds/Aldrich pairings in Hustle and The Longest Yard brought out Burt's most nuanced performances. The only exception might have been Boorman's Deliverance. The takeaway here is that the right director could get gold from Burt Reynolds, one of our most underrated but still overexposed movie stars. While it's true that Burt had a "schtick" (by which I'm admittedly also terribly entertained), he often reached beyond expectations and crafted terrific and now overlooked performances. These expectations, I believe, helped facilitate his late career decline into offensively bland comedies. We'll always have his films from the 1970's - we just need to appreciate them more. Kino has started to give Burt's film the treatment they deserve, but we need to do more. We need Hustle on Blu-ray. At the very least because visions of 1970's Catherine Deneuve should never be marred by poor picture quality.



Dogpound Shuffle (1975; Jeffrey Bloom)
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Fagin and Hutch walk into a bar... Hutch starts playing the harmonica and Fagin begins a soft shoe/tap routine. Okay, so that wasn't funny, certainly no punchline - merely the premise of this good-hearted dramedy about Steps (Ron Moody, Fagin in Carol Reed's Oliver!) and Pritt (David Soul, pre-Detective Hutchinson in Starsky and Hutch) busking with a harmonica and fancy footwork in order to rescue Steps' much beloved mutt from the dog pound. As it turns out, Moody first made a name for himself in vaudeville doing a very similar act. Consequently the tap/harmonica routines amply entertain despite their off-the-cuff simplicity.

Dogpound Shuffle, a Canadian-produced TV movie, is an old-fashioned forgotten man story. Steps, once a successful performer, now lives on the streets. He places no specific blame for his career trajectory. But we can infer that the world decided his specific set of skills was no longer necessary, and consequently he pretty much blames everyone for the cultural degradation.

When animal control picks his dog up, the jaded and angry Steps finds himself without the $30 in fees to spring his pooch. When he sees Pritt (a drifter and aspiring boxer) playing the harmonica, he ropes the younger gentleman into a busking scheme. After a few minor successes and an aborted show in an upper class cocktail lounge, they're offered a gig as entertainment at a millionaire's birthday party. Pritt must figure out how to use an amplifier. Steps must resist the temptation to swindle a pair of shoes. Or must he? Would the upper crust even notice? Wouldn't they want their entertainer to wear classy shoes? To look the part?

Writer/director Jeffrey Bloom had a short film career before going on to a slightly more prolific career in TV movies, culminating in the 1987 adaptation of Flowers in the Attic. By 1991 Bloom dropped off the planet, which seems a shame. I hate to toss out the term "sweet" as a reason to see a movie because "sweet" without substance is merely saccharine. In Dogpound Shuffle, that "sweet" is undermined perfectly by Moody's crotchety, world-wise forgotten man and a late narrative twist that temps Steps' worst tendencies. Laced throughout the film there's also a commentary about the societal safeguards put in place to restrict social mobility and feed Steps' simmering rage. 

Scorpion released the now out-of-print DVD of Dogpound in 2011. I actually learned about this movie through Scorpion's OOP announcement last year. I picked up a used copy and found myself charmed by this low-budget family-friendly ditty about a man trying to bust his dog out of the clink. Pick up a copy before they disappear; there's no telling when or where you'd be able to see this film again.


Bonus:


Day of the Locust (1975; John Schlesinger) - as a huge fan of Nathanael West's source material, I didn't initially care for the film version. But then it grew on me. Different... but the same. I dig it now and wish it would get a new release to top that old OOP Paramount DVD. 

Bite the Bullet - a recent Twilight Time release with little fanfare. Like Rancho Deluxe, Bite the Bullet re-examines the Western myth, but with decidedly different conclusions. I bought it blind because of the cast. Gene Hackman. James Coburn. Candice Bergen. Ben Johnson. Jan-Michael Vincent. That should be enough to sell you. 

At Long Last Love - There's considerable charm in Peter Bogdanovich's tone-deaf musical starring Burt Reynolds, Cybil Shepherd, Madeline Kahn and Eileen Brennan. The recent Blu-ray release should garner the film some redemptive reassessment. I find it an absolute joy of a screwball comedy/musical despite the voice talent that, well, really isn't all that talented. 


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