Movies Till Dawn: All Night All-American ‘70s Crime Wave

12 a.m. – “Dillinger” – Action

AV049(1973, Arrow Video) Writer-direction John Milius’ penchant for storytelling on a semi-mythical level makes him the ideal choice to helm this revisionist take on Depression Era gangster John Dillinger for American International Pictures. As with many of his anti-heroes (Conan the Barbarian, Harry Callahan, Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”) his Dillinger (the great character actor Warren Oates) is a societal outsider whose violent tendencies are tempered by a strict code of ethics – in Dillinger’s case, politeness, fair play, and a refusal to kill innocent bystanders – that makes him both a wanted man by a corrupt Establishment and a folk legend to the common man. Standing in his way is G-Man Melvin Purvis (Oscar winner Ben Johnson), a grandstanding martinet whose reason for wanting Dillinger dead seems more inspired by jealously for the spotlight than law and order. All of this has little to do with the real Dillinger story – the most accurate thing about the film is Oates’ resemblance to the outlaw – but it’s all done with a lot of verve, attention to period detail and some action set pieces that approach Sam Peckinpah levels of ballistic orchestration. The cast, too, brings believable grit to Milius’ folkloric tendencies; in addition to “Wild Bunch” brothers Oates and Johnson in the leads, there’s Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and Papas as Dillinger’s moll, Johnson’s “Last Picture Show” co-star Cloris Leachman as the infamous Lady in Red, Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis as gang members and Steve Kanaly and a young Richard Dreyfuss as Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson, respectively, part of the new breed of criminals whose casual brutality spell the end for gentlemen criminals like Dillinger. Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD presentation features a remarkable 4K restoration as well as commentary by film critic and historian Stephen Prince, who cites many of the cinematic and cultural references Milius drew upon for the film, as well as interviews with composer Barry De Vorzon, producer Lawrence Gordon and cinematographer Jules Brenner, who discuss various aspects of the film’s frenzied production. All that’s missing is Milius himself, who’s nowhere to be found in the set.

1:30 a.m. – “Melinda” – Action/Drama/Crime Drama

61GT3j-YRNL._SL1000_(1972, Warner Archives Collection) Smooth-talking L.A. DJ Frankie Parker (Calvin Lockhart) falls hard for mystery woman Melinda (Vonetta McGee), only to discover her dead in his apartment. With a murder rap hanging over his head, Frankie sets out to find the real killer with the help of his pals, karate instructor Jim Kelly (“Enter the Dragon”) and ex-football pro Rockne Tarkington. A relatively obscure ‘70s entry in the black action cycle with an impressive pedigree – it appears to be the first feature for a major studio (MGM) with an African- American director (Oscar nominee Hugh A. Robertson), writer (Oscar nominee Lonnie Elder III) and producer (former Rams/Raiders/Redskins running back Pervis Atkins) – “Melinda” aims to encompass Southern California noir, urban drama/romance and kung fu action in its nearly two-hour running time. As a result, the film struggles to maintain a consistent tone, which for modern audiences, may be further hampered by the dated, “Playboy After Dark” treatment of female leads McGee and Rosalind Cash. The cast does much of the heavy lifting for the material, with the gifted and underrated Lockhart overcoming the Lothario trappings of his character through abundant screen charisma. He’s well supported by Cash, Tarkington, and Kelly, while Ross Hagen and Paul Stevens (“The Mask”) are appropriately hissable as Mob heels; martial arts and wrestling greats Earl Maynard and Gene LeBell can be glimpsed as part of Kelly’s karate class. Jerry Butler and producer Jerry Peters collaborated on the very funky score; Warner’s widescreen DVD includes the original trailer.

3 a.m. – “Dolemite” – Action/Comedy

71GDFZYhZ7L._SL1500_(1975, Vinegar Syndrome) Outrageous blaxploitation comedy co-written by and starring the late party comic Rudy Ray Moore, whose elaborately obscene rhyming routines have been acknowledged as an influence on hip-hop culture. The most popular of these involved Dolemite, a super-human anti-hero along the lines of Stagger Lee, with incredible supernatural and carnal powers; in the film, Dolemite (played by Moore) loses his nightclub to “that bad Willie Green” (D’Urville Martin, who also directed), who also has him sentenced to prison on trumped-up charges. Once pardoned, Dolemite teams with Queen Bee (fellow comic the Lady Reed) and her all-girl kung fu army to take on Green, the LAPD, the Mayor’s office and just about anyone else in their path. Though direction and production can be charitably described as amateurish, “Dolemite” was a hit with urban and grindhouse audiences largely due to Moore’s exuberantly potty-mouthed presence; with his flabby build, dubious karate skills and double-knit hallucination of a wardrobe, Dolemite at once lampoons and humanizes the impossibly cool, indestructible ‘70s black action hero. Without Moore, “Dolemite” is inept exploitation, but with the comic as its anarchic, self-deprecating core, the film becomes hilarious and surreal urban folklore, a dirty joke written by Ishmael Reed; it’s no wonder that Moore and Dolemite found favor with rappers like Snoop Dogg, Big Daddy Kane and others with a knack for complex and profane wordplay. Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray/DVD set includes commentary by Moore’s biographer, Mark Jason Murray, who discusses Moore’s career and the film’s numerous production problems; both are also covered in a featurette that includes archival interviews with Moore culled from previous DVD releases by Xenon Pictures. There’s also a conversation with the Lady Reed, a brief now-and-then look at many of the Los Angeles locations (including the Dunbar Hotel and the now-closed Ralph’s at Western and MLK Blvd), and theatrical trailers for “Dolemite” and its even more unbridled sequel, “The Human Tornado.” Viewers can also choose which version of “Dolemite” they wish to watch: the full frame “Boom Mic Version” – in which improper matting reveals microphones (and shadows of crew members) at the edges of the frame – offered in previous video releases, and the intended widescreen presentation, which makes its debut in this set.

4:30 a.m. – “You’ll Like My Mother” – Thriller

product_images_modal_YLMMCover72dpi__7B7c9efae6-ddc3-40a4-99ca-adc7dce0cca6_7D(1972, Scream Factory) Pregnant Army widow Patty Duke travels to wintry Minnesota for what she believes will be a sympathetic visit with her late husband’s mother (Rosemary Murphy). The meeting begins on a troubling note – Murphy refuses to believe that the baby is her son’s child – and gets progressively stranger from there, with the introduction of Murphy’s mentally challenged daughter (Sian Barbara Phillips) and a son (Richard Thomas of “The Waltons) whose genteel exterior belies a malevolent past. Duke becoes trapped by a snowstorm in Murphy’s gloomy manse, where secret identities and dark intentions are soon revealed. With its Old Dark House setting, complete with locked doors, hidden passages and a family Bible laden with alarming revelations, this little-seen psychological thriller from Universal and veteran TV director Lamont Johnson offers more Gothic terror than graphic, though the film has more than its share of alarming moments, shored up largely by Jo Helms’ script (adapted from the novel by Naomi A. Hintze), which takes its time in revealing the awful secrets of the house. A solid cast, with standout turns by Thomas, who’s quite frightening in playing against his wholesome TV persona, and Allen, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her fragile performance, delivers the material with conviction. The location – Glensheen Manor in Duluth, later the site of a real-life double murder – also lends a considerable amount of foreboding atmosphere. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray features interviews with Thomas and Allen, who detail their work on the film and subsequent off-screen relationship; the original trailer and production photos round out the disc.

6 a.m. – “The Spikes Gang” – Western

product_2863(1974, Kino Lorber) A trio of farmhands (Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith and Gary Grimes from “Summer of ‘42”) rescues a grizzled stranger (Lee Marvin), who is revealed as the bank robber Harry Spikes. Once a feared name, Spikes is aged and down on his luck, but his romanticized stories of life as a bandit inspire the naïve three to start their own gang. Things go terribly right from the start, with their first robbery ending with murder, but Spikes soon rescues them from prison and joins their outfit as leader. But what promises to be excitement quickly turns into the cold, hard facts of life as an outlaw. Though thematically similar to other coming-of-age Westerns from the ‘70s like “The Culpepper Cattle Company” (with Grimes) and “The Cowboys” (also written by “Spikes” husband-and-wife scribes Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.), Richard Fleischer’s “The Spikes Gang” is decidedly more downbeat in its revisionist take on Western hero worship: Marvin, who is terrific as Spikes, plays the charming rogue and father figure for purely manipulative purposes, and his true nature, revealed when he joins the gang, is both monstrous and pitiable. Grimes, Howard and Smith do a fine job of essaying the would-be gang’s initial excitement, which dissolves into dismay, and Arthur Hunnicutt is heartbreaking as an elderly thief goaded into violence by Marvin’s vicious words. These bleak elements may have contributed to the film’s poor showing at the box office during its theatrical run, but given the current preponderance of silver-tongued leaders selling promises of glory to impressionable types, its message may carry more freight with modern audiences. Kino’s Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

7:30 a.m. – “The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane” – Thriller

738329179724(1977, Kino Lorber) A teenaged girl (Jodie Foster) living with her never-seen poet father in a small coastal Maine town attracts the attention of various locals – busybody real estate agent Alexis Smith, her predatory son Martin Sheen, sympathetic cop Mort Shuman and his lovestruck son Scott Jacoby (“Bad Ronald” himself) – all of whom learn that Foster is more than capable of taking care of herself, as well as anyone she considers a threat. This unsettling French-Canadian production by Hungarian director Nicolas Gessner and writer Laird Koenig (adapting his own novel) benefits hugely from Foster’s ability to portray characters with experience far beyond their years; as with her performance in “Taxi Driver” (which she made in the same year), she moves effortlessly here between complex emotional states, projecting vulnerability and toughness in equal measure, but undercut with a stillness that proves chilling. She’s well matched by Sheen, who is Foster’s opposite: a psychotic, immature adult whose dangerous qualities are entirely on the surface. Their scenes together are a remarkable duet of suggested violence, and remain the film’s squirm-inducing high points. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Gessner, who’s also featured (if not entirely seen) in a friendly Skype conversation with Sheen; the actor is also included in a lengthy interview about his work on the film and with Foster.

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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