Bronson’s Land

DATELINE: Death Wish Out West

By 1971, Charles Bronson began to make the revenge picture his personal genre.

It’s also the year he met Michael Winner who became his John Ford, shaping a series of films, hardly great but full of fury and impact.

The first was a Western done in Spain called Chato’s Land. You might think it’s a spaghetti Western, but it is something far more American: a metaphor for pointless commitment to deathly war and racist attitudes.

It’s not a classic by any means, but it borrows from American classics and thus becomes part of the derivation formula. It seems to take its cue from The Ox Bow Incidnt, made thirty years earlier: a dour Henry Fonda picture about a lynch mob that hangs anyone it can put its hands on. It was led by a fool in a Confederate uniform of past glory.

This time it’s Jack Palance donning the Confederate officer garb—and leading an all-star gang of terrible Western settlers who want to hang a “half-breed” who has killed the town sheriff.

The cast will bowl you over: there’ Ralph Waite as the worst of the worst before he became Daddy Walton.

There’s Simon Oakland and Richard Jordan as his brothers. You will also be treated to James Whitmore and Richard Basehart as older men who should know better.

Charles Bronson turns the tables. And when he goes into full loincloth mode, his body puts body builders to shame. He was pushing sixty, said some, when he did this film. He claimed to be fifty.

There is a death wish pick off, one by one, of rapists and mayhem’s henchmen. Michael Winner wallows in rape and cruelty—and it would become worse over the next decade. Yet, this film is sharply in focus, however cruel, and it started the revenge movie in the urban jungle, starting in the American West.

 

 

 

Noir Classic: He Walked by Night

DATELINE:  Movie as TV Pilot

Dragnet

We had never seen He Walked by Night, and it took us aback right away. It is thought to be a 70-year old black and white masterpiece of low-budget, poverty-row studio. Even the directorship is mysterious: was it really Anthony Mann who sneaked over to another studio to do the work?

Right from the Prologue, we recognized the classic line: “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” What’s more, actor Jack Webb had a featured role!

Then came the ponderous narrator talking about Los Angeles, a big city, etc.. This was followed almost immediately with a long discussion of a dragnet across the city!

Yep:  it was Dragnet!  We were about to see some kind of movie prototype of the famous police show of the 1950s.

Webb did not play Sgt. Joe Friday. No, he was some lab rat in the forensics department, and young virile Scott Brady was the cop.

We learned later that Jack Webb befriended Marty Wynn, the LA technical adviser (whom Brady played). They partnered and came up with the radio/TV show Dragnet in 1950.

This movie was unusual for other reasons. The LA criminal psychopath was played by young Richard Basehart—in cashmere gloves and Brooks Brothers suit. He was a tech-savvy genius, creating 12-foot TV projection screens 40 years before they really happened.

This villain was brilliant and diabolical in his murdering rampage. The intriguing concept of Dragnet, always, was that the pedestrian and bland cops were flatfooted, but persistent.

The other feature here was the deadpan humor of the police, likely a defensive response to the evil they always encountered. It too would surface on Dragnet a few years later.

Also a bit ahead of its time, the climax in the underground flood tunnels of Los Angeles is a precursor of the Third Man where Harry Lime (Orson Welles) was chased by police in Vienna.

Another Dr. Moreau from H.G. Wells

DATELINE:  Genetic Engineering’s Early Days

 moreau Lancaster Experiments on York!

Of the many Island of Dr. Moreau movies, with its many caricatures of the deranged scientist, we count Charles Laughton and Marlon Brando. Each played a zaftig and outrageous mad scientist to the rafters.

In 1977, the most subdued of the versions came out from American International, of all studios, and starred Burt Lancaster as Dr. Moreau. The titan of movies was then 65, but still virile and active. His performance is pure Burt.

Playing the young shipwrecked officer came another star at the top of his game: Michael York, wafer-thin and at his most attractive in the decade where his name was above the title.

He and Lancaster really have several face-offs of grand debate over science. It falls to Lancaster to give his performance the veneer of respectability. He is not a caricature but comes across as the voice of reason. It makes his mad scientist even more frightful.

In an age before DNA, the H.G. Wells tale deals with genetic mutation at the cellular level by means of serum. Here, Moreau wants to change animals into men.

It becomes horrific when he decides to change a man into an animal in the name of science—and York is the victim.

The cast is small, but effective. Among the standouts are Richard Basehart, unrecognizable in makeup, and Nigel Davenport as the assistant to Moreau. Around for looks is Barbara Carrera, standard exotic beauty of the decade.

As for the manimals, they seem to be wearing the leftover costumes from some Planet of the Apes sequel.

The movie belongs to the master, Lancaster. Savor it.