Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '78 Everett Jones ""

Friday, December 7, 2018

Underrated '78 Everett Jones

Everett is an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: - I've gotten many good film recs this way. Everett is also a longtime contributor at RPS!

At a time preoccupied with questions of privacy and all-pervasive surveillance, this film from the versatile, hard-to-pin-down French director Michel Deville seems both quaint and presciently timely. Quaint because, in depicting an intelligence operation to investigate and compromise a career diplomat, the script emphasizes old-school, Le Carre-style spycraft, all honey traps and analog wiretaps. Fans of THE CONVERSATION--and everyone should be one--will find the same high-tech-for-the-time techniques on display here, ala long-range directional microphones. At the same time, in depicting a man’s life solely in terms of the data being generated by and gathered from it, apparently by a government agency dedicated to data-gathering and blackmail for their own sake, Deville draws a picture that once would’ve probably been dismissed airily as paranoid fantasy, but now seems almost commonplace. Also forward-thinking is how the film, without quite being in today’s “found footage” style, is styled if it were the surveillance operation itself, full of subjective shots and narration from interoffice memos by the surveillers. What’s most impressive, though, about this unusual movie from an unusual French master is not its topicality or its style but that it still works in dramatic, emotional terms as the story of a man whom we never meet but whose entire life is exposed over the course of the movie.
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An oddball horror movie of the only-in-the-’70s variety, sometimes amusingly campy and sometimes genuinely unsettling. Giving some idea of its split identity and possible production issues, it also goes by another, very different, but equally exuberantly tasteless handle, namely CLASS REUNION MASSACRE. For most of its running time, this story of a group of old high school classmates who are, you guessed it, reunited and then massacred, in a crumbling old mansion by a mysterious masked man, resembles a very askew version of one of the many slasher movies poised, in the wake of HALLOWEEN and FRIDAY THE 13TH, to flood theater screens in the early ‘80s. However, the prologue and epilogue, involving a Damien-lite choirboy linked in some unspecified way to all this mayhem, hew more closely to the occult parascientific loopiness that had inundated the ‘70s after ROSEMARY’S BABY and THE EXORCIST. The resulting film isn’t exactly coherent, but often surprisingly stylish--the killer’s costumes are especially striking--and always compellingly weird.
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Filmmaker Floyd Mutrux is something of an intriguing question mark for me. In addition to a handful of writing and producing credits on other people’s movies, DICK TRACY and FREEBIE AND THE BEAN among them, his small filmography contains five directing jobs, most notably three in the ‘70s, including (of course) this one, that seem to circle around one of the big hits of the era. While both in title and midcentury setting, AMERICAN HOT WAX echoes George Lucas’s AMERICAN GRAFFITI most clearly and consciously, Mutrux’s debut, DUSTY AND SWEETS MCGEE, foresees George Lucas’s nostalgia trip in certain respects, such as its wall-to-wall retro rock soundtrack and loosely organized ensemble cast structure, albeit in a then-ultra contemporary, gritty drug subculture milieu that resembles a nightmare version of what the future might have held in store for GRAFFITI’s innocent characters. Meanwhile, Mutrux’s second, the BONNIE AND CLYDE-lite road picture ALOHA, BOBBY AND ROSE, swipes one of GRAFFITI’S stars, the now-less remembered Paul Le Mat, and, perhaps coincidentally, features prominently the songs of GRAFFITI superfan Elton John. Mutrux’s films never attained anywhere near the same degree of success, and haven’t been too readily available over the years, but AMERICAN HOT WAX is particularly hard to get hold of, existing publicly now only as a bleary VHS rip. Despite that, the sheer energy of Mutrux’s look at early Cleveland rock DJ Alan Freed still comes through, enough to make clear why even a tough customer like Pauline Kael was won over, particularly by star Tim McIntire, an eerily Orson Welles-like presence and another lesser-known talent who didn’t complete many films before his early death, but gives unforgettable performances in this, ALOHA, and the quirky James Woods vehicle FAST WALKING. Unfortunately, the work of one of the era’s leading cinematographers, William Fraker, can’t really be seen through the audiovisual murk, but what can be appreciated are two unexpected standout performances from a very young Fran Drescher and a practically prenatal Jay Leno.
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A trashy, silly movie in the international-co-production-mold (though in fact it appears to have been solely produced by MGM) which resembles, at the script stage, several of the decade’s big action/war-movie hits not very carefully swirled together into a commercial cocktail, but on a scene-by-scene level, shows off surprisingly stylish work by the accomplished genre journeyman John Hough. In such movies as DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY, TWINS OF EVIL, and THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, as well as Disney’s live-action WITCH MOUNTAIN series, Hough showed a consistent pride in craftsmanship that, despite the cheerleading of people like Quentin Tarantino, isn’t always evident in that decade’s lower-rung commercial fare. Hough can’t do much with a storyline inspired by conspiracy theories around the death of General George S. Patton--himself box-office at the time, of course, after 1970’s Oscar-winning biopic--and tricked out with odds and ends from other recent hits, including THE DAY OF THE JACKAL, KELLY’S HEROES, and THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. However, Hough brings a great deal of verve, and sometimes even a Hitchcockian verve, to his setpieces, including a train heist, hostel shootout, and church belltower confrontation. I also enjoy the idea of a time when a bread-and-butter, just-for-the-money formula movie could mean John Cassavetes and Sophia Loren as romantic leads, in picturesque European settings and backed up by actors like Max von Sydow, Robert Vaughn, Edward Herrmann, Bruce Davison, Patrick McGoohan, and of course, that sure-fire guarantor of box-office success, George Kennedy, not very convincing as Patton but very much in his MODERN ROMANCE mode.
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Assuredly not the best Brian De Palma movie--I’d say that place goes to CARRIE, while other people might instead pick DRESSED TO KILL or BLOW OUT--but maybe my favorite. Certainly not neglected or obscure, and among De Palma fans, even a favorite, this ESP thriller has nonetheless come in for a fair amount of stick over the years, particularly in reference to Pauline Kael’s famously rhapsodic review, often one of the main items of evidence cited by detractors against her good judgment. The director himself has, if not dismissed, at least somewhat diminished the film as merely a job of work, a commercial assignment that, with its psychically gifted and deadly teenagers, landed in his lap thanks to CARRIE’s unexpected success, and afforded his first chance to work with relatively generous big-studio resources. The difference from De Palma’s other assignment films--MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, THE UNTOUCHABLES, SCARFACE--might be how the gimmicks of telekinesis and second sight gives full rein for his signature visual flamboyance, while the absence of any big stars like Tom Cruise or Al Pacino or name screenwriters like Oliver Stone or David Mamet allows his sensibility--irreverent, wickedly funny, and deeply pessimistic--to emerge undiluted. I’ll also admit that, as a De Palma fan, my favorite things about his work don’t include the scores of his frequent collaborator, Pino Donaggio, as much as they contribute to the distinctive feeling of a De Palma movie. So I particularly appreciate the non-Pino De Palmas, including Bernard Herrmann’s SISTERS and OBSESSION scores, but John Williams’s FURY soundtrack might be my very favorite, showcasing the composer before he became irrevocably associated with Spielberg/Lucas pop fanfares.
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Unknown said...

Tim McIntire is amazingly good in American Hot Wax. The rumor is that he was actually the illegitimate son of Orson Welles by Jeanette Nolan (who worked extensively with Welles and was his Lady Macbeth on film). Just watch the first scene of McIntire as a DJ... and you won't doubt it ever again.

Erik Nelson said...

fwiw, Tim looks a lot like his father John McIntire (see PSYCHO) who had a very distinctive voice I know Welles was a notorious horndog, but I can't see him hooking up with Jeanette Nolan. IMHO.

Erik Nelson said...

Also, I agree with the comment about the score for THE FURY. One of my favorites. John Williams is definitely channeling Bernard Hermann.

Erik Nelson said...

This is easily one of my favorite entries in this series and on this blog. I would only add that the visual style of AMERICAN HOT WAX is closer to Robert Altman's work at the time versus George Lucas. This is long overdue for a blu-ray release, but unfortunately, the extensive use of great music from the era has precluded that. It's also a Paramount film and if they aren't releasing more popular films such as PAPER MOON, THE BAD NEWS BEARS and THE LONGEST YARD on blu-ray, the prospects for this film are bleak.