Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '76 - Hal Horn ""

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Underrated '76 - Hal Horn

Hal Horn runs the irreplaceable Horn Section Blog ('reviewing the obscure, overlooked and sometimes the very old' - which I can totally get behind). He is a veteran contributor here and always gives good list.
Check out his Underrated '86 list here:
Beautiful northern co-eds Deborah Raffin and Lynne Moody make that common cinematic mistake: taking a road tripthrough the South on summer break. After they rebuff the advances of sleazy sheriff Chuck Connors (he wanted to show 'em his rifle, man!) they find themselves in jail on bogus charges and sentenced to 30 days on a work farm. Subjected to sexual and physical abuse in addition to the everyday hard labor, our heroines make repeated attempts at contact with the outside world...only to find out just how well-connected their captors really are.

Originally broadcast on ABC on Friday, November 5, 1976, NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY received a lot of R-rated enhancements for its subsequent VHS releases: one such whipping scene even includes full frontal nudity. With or without the additional footage, this is one Movie of the Week that fits in well with RACE WITH THE DEVIL, MACON COUNTY LINE, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and other "cautionary" tales of its era. I actually prefer the original version (I must be maturing :)--Moody and Raffin are always appealing and welcome, but the real attraction is getting to see daily rerun favorites Chuck Connors, Robert Reed and Tina Louise play nasty characters with such gusto. (The revelatory performances of the first two in ROOTS followed just two months later on ABC.) Reed, in particular, was never this despicable onscreen elsewhere.

In his only big-screen lead, "old fashioned man in a brand new world" Redd Foxx is the owner of a successful dry cleaning business. Fred G. Sanford as George Jefferson? Maybe, but the "G" definitely stands for "gay son". After wife Pearl Bailey dumps Foxx for his brother and business partner, he pays a visit to son Michael Warren, not knowing about Warren's alternative lifestyle or his live-in lover (a flaming Dennis Dugan). It's a second shock to Foxx's system in as many days, but he doesn't react by having The Big One. Instead, he hires hooker Tamara Dobson in an effort to "straighten" Warren out, something that his BFF Vernee Watson already wishes to do.

NORMAN...IS THAT YOU? is also the only feature written and directed by LAUGH-IN producer George Schlatter, who adapted the 1970 Broadway flop (12 performances) with several changes--one necessitated by the end of the draft in the interim, the others changing the source play's family from Jewish to African-American and moving the setting from New York to Los Angeles. If you're a Redd Foxx fan, this one is a must, as the salty comedian has several long monologues, a priceless scene in a bookstore (buying 8 books on homosexuality) and subsequently, in a park (as he reads the books out loud to himself). Foxx spends a big chunk of the film bantering with Dugan as he attempts to understand his estranged son, and their banter is the film's highlight. Strangely, Foxx and Dugan actually have more chemistry than the film's romantic couples.

Woody Allen neither wrote nor directed, but he was a terrific choice to play a cashier (and lousy gambler) who suddenly becomes a prolific scriptwriting sensation in the early 1950's as the titular front for childhood friend Michael Murphy and several other blacklisted TV writers. Allen gets the opportunity to deadpan many funny lines, but don't be fooled: real-life blacklist victims Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein aren't making a comedy. Drawing inspiration from their own experiences, as well as the heartbreaking stories of several other HUAC victims (Philip Loeb of THE GOLDBERGS in particular), the director and screenwriter keep this genial film's underlying message afloat throughout. 1976 was a year loaded with fine Oscar candidates, and THE FRONT simply wasn't as flashy as the others, but forty years later it is still remarkably relevant and poignant. While Allen deserves credit for his fine work, the film's real standout is Zero Mostel, another blacklisted performer, attacking his final film role with gusto. The real-life incident in the Catskills was drawn from Mostel's own experiences. Highly recommended, possibly the best film of an outstanding year.

The cinematic swan song from Gordon Parks, Sr. (THE LEARNING TREE), LEADBELLY covers the life of blues legend Hudie Ledbetter. Leaving the family farm to stay a step ahead of the law (at his father's insistence), Leadbelly drifts between Texas and Louisiana and between incarceration and freedom throughout his turbulent life, with music as his only constant.

Roger Mosley plays Ledbetter with a two-fisted, high-strung approach, and the film's episodic nature is appropriate. Commendably, Parks avoids virtually all of the clich├ęs we've come to expect from music bios, and is refreshing when dealing with racism and the exploitation of artists. This was a real labor of love for Parks; unhappy with the studio's lack of support for this pet project, Parks never directed again. Our loss. With Madge Sinclair (great, as always) and Paul Benjamin. David Frost was the executive producer.

Dark comedy from Peter Yates (BULLITT) starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch and Harvey Keitel. (Guess who Raquel plays?) Cosby is a real anti-hero here as the star driver of a fledgling ambulance service in Los Angeles: with a brazen attitude throughout, Cosby drinks on duty, harasses nuns, and general acts in a way that we couldn't picture Cosby behaving---at least, not until decades later. Some jarring shifts between comedy and drama here, with good work turned in by Larry Hagman (playing the biggest sleazeball), L. Q. Jones and Allen Garfield. Like so many from the decade, there's no way this one could be made today.


S.M. said...

Leadbelly was not Gordon Parks' last film. He directed the PBS TV film Solomon Northrup's Odyssey in 1984 with Avery Brooks which was the first film version of the true story later done as 12 Years a Slave directed by Steve McQueen.

Hal said...

True, thanks Sergio. Meant to say "last theatrical film" as I did in my original review at the blog. It's been a few years since I wrote it. :)