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Blu-ray Review: “Brannigan” (1975)

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“Knock knock.”

Brannigan (1975) is a guilty pleasure. John Wayne, in one of his last films – he made only Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976) after this – plays a fish-out-of-water Chicago cop in London, in a movie all too clearly inspired by the success of Dirty Harry (1971), a project originally offered to but rejected by Wayne. But Dirty Harry eventually grossed $36 million domestically ($18 million in rentals during its initial release) against a budget of just $4 million – and at a time when Wayne’s pictures were marginally successful at best.

Wayne responded with McQ (1974), a Dirty Harry clone much less enjoyable than the supremely ridiculous and touchingly elegiac though unrelated Brannigan. Most reviewers then and now unfavorably compare both films to Clint Eastwood’s now very dated Dirty Harry series (all but the first of the five films are virtually unwatchable today). The offbeat setting and obvious though entertaining cultural clashes are a plus, and Brannigan is more relaxed and less imitative of Dirty Harry, even though its premise resembles yet another Eastwood picture, Coogan’s Bluff (1969). Wayne, then 67 but looking much older with his deeply-etched features, big gut and bad toupee, is barely credible as an active police officer, but a few amusing lines of dialogue (“Get Brannigan! Use a forklift if you have to!”) amusingly address these issues while his relationship with co-star Judy Geeson is, thankfully, more paternal than romantic.

MGM holds the rights to this United Artists release. They in turn have licensed their video master to Twilight Time. There are some good extra features, but the transfer itself appears old and/or inadequate. It’s not terrible, but falls into that I-guess-it-looks-a-little-better-than-the-DVD category, as evidenced by the high-def trailer that’s also included. Using inferior source elements, it’s clearly sharper and brighter than the feature presentation.

The movie opens in Chicago (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh was based in Seattle) where police Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) bursts through a door, interrupting a small-time counterfeiter hard at work. “Knock knock,” Brannigan says, with exquisite John Wayne deadpannedness. He’s looking for notorious racketeer Ben Larkin (John Vernon, the Mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry) but Larkin, threatened with a grand jury indictment, has already done a runner to London, where Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) stands ready to arrest and extradite the underworld kingpin.

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Brannigan’s boss, Capt. Moretti (Ralph Meeker) puts Big Jim aboard the next flight to London, where DS (Detective Sergeant) Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), Brannigan’s driver and liaison officer, is there to meet him.  However, just as Brannigan arrives in London Town, cocky, confident Larkin is kidnapped by two hoods (one is James Booth from Zulu, the other is Straw Dogs‘ Del Henney) who make huge ransom demands from Larkin’s attorney (Mel Ferrer) – and who show they mean business by mailing one of Larkin’s severed fingers to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, a hit man (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin back in Chicago makes several extravagant attempts on Brannigan’s life.

The cinematic Old West didn’t change much as Wayne himself aged. Conversely, it’s a little jarring to see him in then-present day London madly trying to jump the Tower Bridge’s drawbridge in a yellow Ford Capri. The film tries hard to be a fish-out-of-water Western in modern dress, even to the point of staging a completely superfluous comical barroom brawl (What exactly instigates it anyway?) that, minus the bowler hats and pints of Guinness, could be straight out of McLintock! (1963).

The movie works best watching the British characters react with dismay, disgust, or bemusement to Brannigan’s American swagger (he insists on carrying his flagrantly illegal handgun, all but telling an appalled Sir Charles to buzz off) and vice versa. In other hands Sir Charles might have been a painful stereotype, an English version of John Vernon’s Mayor character from Dirty Harry, but Attenborough nicely underplays his role, alternately amused if puzzled by the oversized American and only occasionally loses his cool, helpless against Brannigan’s inelegant meddling. Geeson, 41 years Wayne’s junior, is well cast: believably efficient and friendly but also clearly doing a job, she and Wayne have better rapport than many of Wayne’s late-career female co-stars.

Douglas Hickox directed. His short list of credits is nothing if not eclectic. His previous film was the horror-black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), maybe Vincent Price’s best-ever film, and soon after Hickox would helm the vastly underrated prequel to Zulu, entitled Zulu Dawn (1979). Despite good reviews that film died at the box office. Hickox segued into television and died too young, in 1988.

The picture has a few good action set pieces, an excellent car chase undermined only by the sequence’s final stunt, clearly faked via some sort of optical or miniature effect. Though old and fat, Wayne in his old age still could throw a visually spectacular punch, and behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot by Geeson during the filming of the picture’s climax suggests Wayne may have thrown his considerable weight in other areas, influencing how at least his character should be photographed. (The home movies show something else likely never seen on any other Blu-ray extra: actor Mel Ferrer picking his nose.) The locations are used well. Scenes in Picadilly Circus show off marquees advertising The Sting and The Great Gatsby, while the nearby Picadilly Theatre promises A Streetcar Named Desire headlined by Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw.

Disc extras include an audio commentary by Judy Geeson, prompted by Nick Redman. The aforementioned home movies are limited to footage of filming the climactic scene, but they are interesting for showing Wayne’s particular way of filming such sequences.  There’s an isolated score track featuring Dominic Frontiere’s frequently derivative music (a scene with Ferrer eluding the police sounds all too much like a cue Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Planet of the Apes, for instance; other cues are reminiscent of Shaft).  Julie Kirgo offers some good liner notes, and there’s that better-looking-than-the-movie trailer.

Not a great film but far more entertaining than one might expect, Brannigan’s impact is undermined by a lackluster transfer but still a whole heck of a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Killers” (1964)

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Here’s a real achievement, a new Blu-ray that makes a feature film look far better than it ever has before, even on a big screen. Eleven years ago the Criterion Collection released an impressive double bill of both film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The very brief short story was successfully expanded to feature length in 1946, with the use of Citizen Kane- like flashbacks to a highly romantic, fateful story of crime and betrayal. The Robert Siodmak movie made stars of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. I’ve seen the 1964 remake several times, but Arrow Films’ new disc is so much of an improvement that I feel I’ve seen it for the first time.

As a general rule classic films noir resist remake efforts: much of what works about them is endemic to the time they were made. Restage 1945′s Detour in the present, and Al Roberts’ self-pitying pessimism wouldn’t work for a minute. But noir veteran Don Siegel had been a central figure in the evolution of ’50s noir, in pictures like Private Hell 36 (1954), Baby Face Nelson (1957) and The Lineup (1958). The romanticism of noir was breaking down in Siegel’s films, as the level of cynicism and violence steadily climbed.

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Gene L. Coon’s progressive screenplay for Siegel’s The Killers remake flips the original storyline like a pancake. The ’46 version followed an insurance investigator obsessed with finding out why the target of paid killers didn’t make an effort to save himself. Siegel’s version has no reassuring cops tracking down the truth, and instead gives the investigating duties to a pair of chatty Pulp Fiction- like hit men, in search of a big payday that will allow them to retire. Siegel develops the hit man ethos more than any other director: Robert Keith and Eli Wallach in his The Lineup may be the real original protagonist hit men, with quirky personalities.

As opposed to classic noir, The Killers takes place almost completely in broad daylight. Brutal hit men Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) track down their contract target Johnny North (John Cassavetes) to a school for the blind, where he teaches an auto shop class. To their surprise, North passively accepts his fate. Charlie is intrigued by this fact. He and Lee crisscross the country to ferret out North’s backstory, both to quench Charlie’s curiosity and to profit from whatever crime their victim was a part of. As it turns out, North was a promising race car driver until a debilitating accident that may have been caused by the distraction of his flashy new girlfriend, Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson). Starting with the testimony of mechanic Earl Sylvester (Claude Akins), Charlie and Lee learn about North’s involvement in an armored car robbery, for Sheila and her new boyfriend, crook Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan). If the hit men can find Sheila and Jack, the loot can’t be far away.

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The Killers rewrites the rules for screen crime. Almost as if the production code no longer existed, “nice” characters are nowhere to be seen, and the cops are mostly absent as well. The obsessed Charlie and the wisecracking health nut Lee are our protagonists. They terrorize innocent people for information, just like Hemingway’s original Al and Max but with an essential difference of of expedience. In the hepped-up, speed-obsessed sixties, Charlie and Lee have no time to mess around. Rudely cornering their prey, they immediately go for the hard sell, whether it means hanging a woman out of a high window, or driving a helpless blind lady into hysterics. They carry their pistols in a valise, as if they were businessmen paying a sales call.

Making the film seem even more modern, Charlie and Lee already display the “look” that dominates hit man characters to this day. They woudn’t be caught dead without the heavy dark glasses that make them look ominous, almost faceless. Director Don Siegel nails a prime visual that’s become an icon: when Charlie points his gun to take a shot, a wide-angle lens frames his oversized silencer in huge close-up. Charlie’s on the trigger but the gun is given equal graphic emphasis.

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Johnny North’s role as an existential loser is basically the same as in the ’46 version. John Cassavetes received a big career boost when he played a twisted juvenlie delinquent back in Don Siegel’s excellent Crime in the Streets (1956) (which incidentally also seems to have influenced the gang action in the play and movie West Side Story). Here Cassavetes is the cocky driver of a Cobra race car. His stomping ground is the former Riverside International Raceway, which had already seen screen time in the violent car race action scenes in 1959′s On the Beach. One of the hottest actresses of her time, Angie Dickinson is the new brand of amoral thrill-seeker. She’s attracted to Johnny when he’s a winner and quickly abandons him when he’s injured. There’s no longer any romantic mystique with this femme fatale, as she immediately goes where the money is. Cassavetes’ North is already defeated when he agrees to drive a vehicle in Jack Browning’s robbery scheme. This part of the movie seems lifted intact from Richard Quine’s 1954 noir Drive a Crooked Road. Just like Mickey Rooney in the earlier picture, North is hired because he can cover a mile or so of twisting country road in less than a minute. Sheila tempts North with a promise of a mutual getaway when the job’s done… a sucker play if there ever was one.

It’s quite a surprise to see Ronald Reagan playing a humorless crook in the picture, his final feature film before becoming Governor of California. Perhaps the man most hated by U.C.L.A. students in 1970-71, Reagan sent in an army of cops to teach a lesson to demonstrators against the invasion of Cambodia. The amazing thing about Reagan’s performance in The Killers is that he has the same permanent scowl on his face that he showed in newsreels when he promised to deal out punishment to Berkeley and U.C.L.A.. A one-dimensional heavy with no redeeming qualities, Reagan is as rigid as a washboard. But his Jack Browning has a jaw-dropping moment of violence when he slaps Angie Dickinson across a room. It’s a classic piece of film, just on content alone: Burt Bacharach’s woman recoils backward, hair flying, and our cool liberal Cassavetes, Machine Gun McCain himself, decks Reagan with a retaliatory right cross. This utterly priceless scene got standing ovations at UCLA; why doesn’t it show up in Oscar montages, I ask you?

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Lee Marvin nails the buttoned-down shark patter that Charlie lays on his victims, defining the star persona he’d nurture for the next two decades. Clu Gulager affects a giggling hipster cruel streak. He primps like Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes of TV’s 77 Sunset Strip a behavior that hasn’t aged well. Gulager comes off as the weak sister to Marvin’s cold menace, sort of a hit man’s Sancho Panza. Angie Dickinson, the modern man’s woman of choice from China Gate (1957) and Ocean’s Eleven (1960), has an essential toughness that would later make her a perfect mobster’s foil when she reunited with Marvin in 1967′s Point Blank. John Cassavetes contributes his reliable intensity. At this time he was concentrating on his directing career, and reportedly acting to gather production money.

Cassavetes even obtained a brief bit part for his Faces star Seymour Cassell. Familiar actor Norman Fell has a smallish supporting roll. Helping to get The Killers off to a shocking start is the wonderful actress Virginia Christine. In the 1946 original she played a charming cop’s wife. Here she has a brief but strong role as a blind woman manhandled and threatened by Lee Marvin. For viewers old enough to remember, Christine’s television fame as the “Folger’s coffee lady” greatly enhances the scene’s impact.

Don Siegel bounced around for most of the 1960s, trying to stay active in big-screen work but often collecting a paycheck for TV jobs. Initially produced as a TV movie, The Killers ended up being something of a stumbling block for the director. Not long after it was completed John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and the film’s nihilistic violence — which includes a pair of sniper killings from atop a tall building — was deemed far too brutal for television. It was instead released directly to theaters in July of ’64. When film critics of the 1970s discovered genre studies, the JFK connection helped The Killers become a standout title in articles and books seeking a conncection between the movies and the accelerating violence in modern life. Lee Marvin and his gun graced the cover of English fine art critic Lawrence Alloway’s rambling essay-book Violent America: The Movies, 1946-1964. Anyone concerned about screen violence in 1964 was surely in for a rude shock when pictures like Bonnie & Clyde came along a couple of years later.

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Don Siegel and Gene L. Coon’s conclusion makes a strong statement about the culture in general. A main character gets what he wants yet ends up drained of blood on a neat green lawn in suburbia, defeated by the everyday, square consumer life he held in contempt. Several other pictures convey this notion of dissatisfaction with the value system, such as Burt Kennedy’s The Money Trap. But Siegel’s final shot gives us the iconic image to remember.


Arrow Academy’s Region B Blu-ray of The Killers is a huge improvement over Criterion’s 2003 DVD. At the time, the best Universal could provide was a grainy flat transfer of the film. The Killers always looked like a fairly ratty TV production until now. Arrow’s grain-free image is as sharp as a tack and colors are bright and accurate; clearly Universal did a bang-up remastering job. The Blu-ray has both television and cinema aspect ratio versions of the movie, which in this case is a terrific choice. Although planned for TV, the picture was composed for theatrical widescreen use, as TV movies (and some series, re-edited) of the time were commonly distributed theatrically in Europe.

The wide screen version is the way to go, as the images look beautiful when framed to exclude extraneous ceilings and floors. Although it’s surely an illusion, the image even looks a bit wider. The cropping also helps minimize the impact of some cost-cutting in the production, which was done on a TV budget. Rear projection driving scenes look less awkward, for one example. Some painted backdrops are also on the weak side, especially the incredibly fake view from Jack Browning’s office window. It somehow seems appropriate, though, to see Ronald Reagan staring blankly at such a phony backdrop.

Arrow’s extras include a couple of presentations by authors with books to sell. Marc Eliot’s coverage of Reagan’s involvement is welcome, as the man did have longevity as an actor. Dwayne Epstein’s remarks on his subject, Lee Marvin, go awry from the start with the unsupported assertion that Marvin was the catalyst for screen violence in the ’60s. The fine actor was more successful during these years in comic roles, for which he was rewarded with an acting Oscar.

The best piece on the disc is a 1984 interview with Don Siegel by a French TV crew. Siegel is marvelously candid about his work and the business. We’re intrigued to hear a couple of remarks that his acolyte Sam Peckinpah would adopt as his own, namely the statement that film directors are whores that work where they’re told (or kicked). We immediately like Mr. Siegel — he’s not the kind of self-promoter that considers himself the star of his movies. Luckily, Siegel’s other pupil Clint Eastwood was more generous, and 1971′s Dirty Harry returmed him to the top rank of directors for a few years.

The disc extras also contain a thorough still gallery. My check disc did not include Arrow’s illustrated insert booklet, which is said to contain an essay by Mike Sutton, interview excerpts with Siegel and contemporary reviews. Final product discs also come with a choice of reversible package artwork.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson



The Killers

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Arrow Academy (UK)

1964 / Color / 1:78 widescreen and 1:37 flat full frame / Street Date February 24, 2014 / £ 15.09

Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager,
Claude Akins, Norman Fell, Ronald Reagan

Cinematography Richard L. Rawlings

Art directors Frank Arrigo, George Chan

Editor Richard Belding

Original Music Johnny Williams, Henry Mancini, Don Raye

Written by Gene L. Coon from the short story by Ernest Hemingway

Produced and Directed by Donald Siegel

Packaging: Keep case

Reviewed: March 8, 2014

 

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Blu-ray Review: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974)

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There seems little doubt that, 20 years from now, many of Clint Eastwood’s formula blockbusters, movies like The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Firefox (1982), and all of the Dirty Harry sequels will gradually fade from public consciousness, while his more ambitious and unusual starring films – The Beguiled (1971), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Bronco Billy (1980) – will be reappraised as far more interesting works. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) belongs in this latter category. It’s a road movie-crime film with, for the time and its genre especially, surprisingly rich and offbeat characterizations. It’s also, contrastingly, brutally violent at times and features especially good action set pieces, particularly some dangerous-looking car stunts supervised by Carey Loftin (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). Eastwood alone gets his name above the title, but up-and-comer Jeff Bridges received most of the accolades, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Eastwood’s Malpaso Company produced the film for release through United Artists, but the actor reportedly was unhappy with UA’s handling of the movie (though it still grossed a robust $25 million against its $4 million negative cost). He may have a point. Warner Bros., home to most of Eastwood’s filmography, aggressively releases and re-releases all of Eastwood’s movies, good and bad, while Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, part of the MGM library, has been released to DVD exactly once: in June 2000, in a widescreen but unenhanced video transfer. Despite the grossly outdated transfer, as I write this Amazon is currently selling new copies of this old DVD for $75.98. Huh? Why MGM has chosen to all but ignore probably the most internationally bankable star of the last half-century is a mystery.

But now, through Twilight Time, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot comes to Blu-ray and 1080p high-definition. Needless to say, it’s a vast improvement over the DVD, especially considering writer-director Michael Cimino’s and cinematographer Frank Stanley’s excellent, frame-filling Panavision compositions. The disc also includes an audio commentary and trailer.

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The movie starts with a literal bang as the sermon by a rural Idaho preacher (Eastwood, hair neatly slicked back and wearing bifocals) is interrupted by the shotgun blasts of Red Leary (George Kennedy), clearly gunning for the minister. Meanwhile, carefree young drifter Lightfoot (Bridges) steals a Trans Am right off the lot of a used car dealer (Gregory Walcott). Lightfoot and the preacher meet as the latter effects his escape from Leary, with the younger ne’er-do-well gradually recognizing the preacher as Thunderbolt, a fugitive bank robber who with muscle Leary, driver Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), and two others audaciously used a 20mm cannon to blast open a seemingly impenetrable vault and steal the $500,000 inside it.

Thunderbolt squirreled away the loot behind the blackboard of a one-room schoolhouse, but the two return there only to find a modern school built in its place. Leary and Goody eventually catch up to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seeking revenge, all because Leary wrongly assumes Thunderbolt double-crossing everyone. Instead, Lightfoot convinces the others to simply break into the vault a second time, using the same cannon.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot came about after Michael Cimino impressed Eastwood with his cocky personality and rewrites on Magnum Force (1973), the second Dirty Harry movie. Eastwood generously acquiesced to first-time director Cimino’s desire to adapt his own script, though Eastwood reportedly was later annoyed by Cimino’s perfectionism and endless takes. (Cost-conscious Eastwood has one of the lowest shooting ratios in Hollywood, and during the making of the film Eastwood-as-producer often vetoed Cimino’s excesses.) While overlong at 114 minutes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s screenplay is nevertheless far superior to Magnum Force and most of Eastwood’s ‘70s output.

In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot Eastwood is polar-opposite of his short-fused, grimly neo-fascist Dirty Harry, nor is he the reticent, brawling good ol’ boy of comedies like Every Which Way But Loose. Instead, here he’s unusually relaxed and even smiles broadly several times, Thunderbolt clearly amused by Lightfoot’s cocky, charming naïveté. It’s Lightfoot’s ambition to pull off a big heist that drive the plot, his childlike enthusiasm spurring the more experienced if aimless middle-aged career criminals.

That the heist becomes something as enjoyable as it is dangerous and even deadly is one of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s many unusual qualities. Like the slam-bang opening, Cimino’s idiosyncratic script is full of surprises. Amusingly, to stake their heist the four work minimum-wage jobs: Goody drives an ice cream truck, Leary works as a third-shift janitor at a department store guarded by man-eating Dobermans, etc.

In one of the best (if entirely tangential) scenes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride with what turns out to be a completely balmy driver (Bill McKinney) who keeps a caged raccoon in the passenger seat while his car’s trunk is packed to the gills with fluffy white bunny rabbits. (Cimino seems to have given Bridges especially room to improvise. One possible example of this is an exchange where Lightfoot accidentally puts his hand in some raccoon shit. Eastwood’s amused reaction doesn’t look rehearsed.)

Ultimately though, it’s the beguiling father-son like bonding among thieves Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that cements the picture, the former amused and paternal, fulfilling an unstated longing by the latter, eternally optimistic, for someone to look up to. Some read a gay subtext to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but really it draws on a tradition common to myriad B Westerns, with Bridges a Russell Hayden/Lucky Jenkins-type admirer to father figure William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy.

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The 1080p transfer of this 2.35:1 Panavision production is excellent. The title elements are quite grainy, but overall the transfer is true and accurate with minimal manipulation. In high-def the careful framing and gorgeous rural Idaho and Montana locations really shine, while the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio maximizes the limitations of the mono audio. (Optional English subtitles are provided.)

Extras include Julie Kirgo’s observant liner notes, and she joins Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on a somewhat meandering but okay audio commentary track. An original trailer is included, along with an isolated score track.