Movies Till Dawn: Crime and Punishment

12 a.m. – “Miami Blues” – Action/Thriller

product_images_modal_MBBRCover72dpi__7B8b57e7de-756f-e411-bad0-d4ae527c3b65_7D(1990, Shout Factory) Co-producer Jonathan Demme’s eclectic film style is felt throughout this darkly comic crime drama about love and murder among lowlifes on both sides of the law in Florida. Alec Baldwin began his transformation from leading man to character actor as Junior Frenger, a violent psychopath with an adolescent boy’s aspirations of power and respect; to that end, he sets up house with naïve escort Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and impersonates a police detective after taking the gun and badge (and dentures) of grizzled detective Hoke Moseley (co-producer Fred Ward). Writer-director George Armitage (“Grosse Point Blank”), who began his career alongside Demme under Roger Corman at New World Pictures in the 1970s, does a fine job of translating the grit and character detail from the source novel by noir specialist Charles Willeford to the screen; he’s well abetted by his three leads, who embody the beautiful loser aesthetic at the heart of Willeford’s fiction, and a terrific supporting cast that includes Demme vet Charles Napier, Paul Gleason, Nora Dunn and Shirley Stoler (“The Honeymoon Killers”), each of whom flesh out the sort of colorful eccentrics that populate Demme’s films. Tak Fujimoto’s photography, too, is an important component to the picture; by depicting Florida as a strange hothouse where weird and lovely fauna like Junior, Hoke and Susie might take root and blossom in their own odd ways. Shout Factory’s Collector’s Edition Blu-ray includes new interviews with Baldwin and Leigh, who speak effusively about their affection for the film.

1:30 a.m. – “Retaliation” – Action/ Thriller

8126Ga4iJKL._SL1336_(1968, Arrow Video USA) Japanese yakuza thriller from the venerable (and wildly diverse) Nikkatsu movie studio with one of its stalwart leading men, Akira Kobayashi, as a gangster, newly freed from prison, who ignites a war between rival gangs in a bid to take over gang activity in a bleak industrial city. Adding to his concerns is a hot-tempered thug (cult favorite Jo Shishido) who initially wants to kill him before becoming his second-in-command (friends close/enemies closer). The story is standard-issue yakuza fare, though director Yasuharu Hasebe (whose previous crime effort for Nikkatsu, “Massacre Gun,” is also available from Arrow) keeps the pace brisk with plenty of gore-soaked fights (few guns, but lots and lots of knives and swords) captured with hand-held camerawork. He also gets a lot of mileage from the presence of Shishido, a cult favorite in films by Seijun Suzuki (“Branded to Kill”), whose signature blend of insouciant cool and an unusual look – his expanded cheeks, filled out by plastic surgery, make his face look like a hallucination of tension – boost the sense of impending anarchy. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes an amusing interview with the now-elderly but still eccentric Shishido and a more scholarly chat with historian Tony Rayns.

3 a.m. – “Cemetery without Crosses” – Action/Western

81pLdHTcxyL._SL1500_(1969, Arrow Video USA) Bleak, near-noirish European Western from actor-director Robert Hossein, who plays a solitary gunslinger hired by his former love (Michele Mercier) to avenge the murder of her husband by the Rogers, a vicious outlaw family. His reluctance to become involved in the feud is compounded when he is instructed to kidnap the youngest daughter of the outlaw clan, ostensibly to use as bait to lure the entire family to their deaths. Things go horribly wrong from there, further detonating traditional Western tropes about loyalty and honor that were already set ablaze by Sergio Leone and other spaghetti Western filmmakers. Fans of the operatic aesthetics of European Westerns may find Hossein’s take excessively dark – it hews closer to the gritty, dust-laden “realistic” American Westerns of the 1970s like “Dirty Little Billy” or “Doc” – but the gravity of his approach underscores the potency of his anti-violent stance; revenge, which figures as the driving engine behind so many Westerns, is seen as a terminal point rather than a redemptive one, with all parties losing by pursuing such a terrible goal. Though at times fatalistic in tone, “Cemetery” isn’t a dreary viewing experience: the Morricone-like score by Hossein’s brother, Andre, is a pleasure, as is the hard-swinging theme song, sung by Scott Walker, and there’s a touch of dark humor, most notably in a scene between Hossein and the Rogers that was directed by Leone in appreciation of Hossein’s praise for the “Dollars” trilogy. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes both English and Italian-language tracks (the latter was reportedly written by Dario Argento, though Hossein has denied this), as well as two archival clips concerning the film’s production from French TV. A newer interview with Hossein concerns his friendship with Leone, while the Italian-language trailer and an informative pair of essays round out the disc.

4:30 a.m. – “Busting” – Action/Crime Drama

2796(1974, Kino Lorber) Peter Hyams’ feature directorial debut is a mostly effective take on the ‘70s-era cop drama, which sought to humanize both law enforcement and criminals and unite them, more or less, against the larger and more implacable forces of a government structure riddled with corruption. Robert Blake and Elliott Gould (at the height of their brief run as box office draws) are hardworking and unsung L.A. vice cops on the trail of a gangster (Allen Garfield) who styles himself as a family man while dominating the city’s illegal trade and wielding inordinate influence on City Hall. Hyams’ script merges the cynical tone of many police and crime dramas from the period (see “Serpico,” “Report to the Commissioner”), with the gallows humor of pictures like “The Choirboys”; he’s more successful in the latter than the former, largely due to the likable screen relationship between the streetwise, shaggy Gould and the hotwired Blake. They also acquit themselves well to an array of action setpieces, including a shootout in a pre-Grove Farmers Market, and hold their own against a formidable array of character actors in the supporting cast, including Sid Haig as a goon under Garfield’s employ, Richard X. Slattery, Antonio Fargas and Michael Lerner; Cornelia Sharpe is also solid as an escort who is pressured into assisting their efforts against Garfield. Kino’s Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks – a lengthy and informative conversation with Hyams, and a briefer, more mercurial chat with Gould – as well as the theatrical trailer and previews for Gould in Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” and Hyams’ own “Running Scared,” which borrows a tip or two from this picture.

6 a.m. – “Vigilante Force” – Action

2777(1976, Kino Lorber) A rough thematic blueprint for “Miami Blues” can be found in George Armitage’s second effort as writer-director, a violent, rural-set action-drama for United Artists and producer Gene (brother of Roger) Corman, which suggests “Walking Tall” as envisioned by Samuel Fuller (or Sam Peckinpah). When oil workers take over and decimate a small California town, tractor salesman Jan-Michael Vincent suggests that the locals take matters into their own hands; to this end, he enlists his brother (Kris Kristofferson), a former town troublemaker and Vietnam Vet, to lead a vigilante group in enforcing the law. Many busted heads and wrecked cars later, Kristofferson finds boundless power to his liking, and becomes an even more dangerous occupying presence in the town, spurring Vincent into a showdown with his brother. Though action is the primary focus of “Vigilante Force,” Armitage manages to layer in subtext about the corruptive elements of unbridled power and the strongarm approach of homeland security (a timely issue now and then), which elevates the picture beyond just simple drive-in crash and bang; he’s less successful in fleshing out the characters beyond their basic motivation, but gets solid turns from the male leads and Bernadette Peters as a local performer who falls, for inexplicable reasons, for Kristofferson. A host of familiar faces dot the supporting cast, including Victoria Principal as Vincent’s love interest, Brad Dexter (“The Magnificent Seven”), David Doyle, Andrew Stevens, Charles Cyphers, Paul Gleason as a repellent creep, and Corman regulars Antony Carbone and Dick Miller, as well as an uncredited turn by Loni Anderson. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes informative commentary by Armitage with filmmaker Elijah Drenner (director of “That Guy Dick Miller”), as well as trailers for “Force” and the Vincent actioners “Convoy” and “Defiance.”

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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