Friday, October 23, 2020

THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS 1968

“Nobody Touched Las Vegas Loot Until… They Came to Rob Las Vegas” 



An oozing coolness Gary Lockwood and a gang of European character actors hatch out a heist plan to knock-off a hi-tech armored truck in this unjustly forgotten caper film. A French/Spain/Italy/West Germany co-production that also features Elke Sommer along with Lee J. Cobb and Jack Palance (in a rare good guy role) bringing some acting and publicity gravitas to the production. Lots of vintage Vegas exteriors and awash in 60's decor, it also features a script with some quirky & witty moments but at 129 minutes is kind of ponderous in places.

Opening with a COOL HAND LUKE-like frenzied escape through a swamp complete with angry dogs and shotguns, Gino Russo (Jean Servais RIFIFI 1955) makes good his escape via car and ends up in psychedelic 1960's L.A. where he looks up his younger brother Tony (Gary Lockwood 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY 1968). Gino tries to talk his younger brother into an armored car robbery on a heavily armored and fortified vehicle operated by the Skorsky Corporation, but Tony declines as he reminds the elderly Gino that times have changed and the caper is doomed to fail. Sure enough, Gino and his gang although armed with a bazooka (!!) are bloodily gunned down in a freeway overpass attempting the robbery while a gang of spectators including Tony watches impassively from atop the freeway. 

Now in Las Vegas Tony works as a blackjack dealer at The Flamingo and is running a scam on the casino with Jill Bennett (Elke Sommer DEADLIER THAN THE MALE 1967) and planning a revenge caper on the Skorsky Corporation which is headed by Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb MARC THE NARC 1975) whose specially designed armored cars (that looks like an armor-plated Winnebago) are used to transport money from Vegas to Los Angeles. Sommer's Jill Bennett is also the secretary/mistress of Steve Skorsky and it is with her that Tony will obtain the secret route timing of the money shipment. Adding another twist to the proceedings is that Skorsky is also using his armored trucks to transport gold for the Mafia which brings in Treasury Agent Douglas (Jack Palance RULERS OF THE CITY 1976) to start nosing around.



Tony brings together his gang to pull off the heist which includes a gaggle of familiar faces including Gustavo Re (SUMMERTIME KILLER 1972), Daniel Martin (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS 1964), and Enrique Avila (PLAY DIRTY 1969). Unlike other caper films, there's not a lot of time here devoted to the actual planning as Tony just gathers his gang around a pool table and then marches them out to the desert with the long shots of men trudging over sand dunes giving a flashback of sorts to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. The film also seems to draw upon the previous year's John Wayne/Kirk Douglas western THE WAR WAGON (which in actuality is a western caper film) as they both share a supposedly impregnable method of transporting money that's controlled by a corrupt power-hungry businessman.  

With both the Treasury Agent Douglas and Tony looking to get into the armored truck it's inevitable that this leads to both of them trying it on the same day which leads to the film really kicking into gear with double-crosses, triple-crosses and I think even a quadruple cross(??)! When the film sticks to the nuts and bolts of the heist it is holding your interest but when it invariably moves to character interaction it falls a bit flat. There's a lot of Lee J. Cobb in his high-tech office building (which looks to be lifted right out of Euro-spy villains liar) yelling and growling at people along with some tedious filler toward the end and at 129 minutes it could have lost about 20 minutes easily. 



Directed by Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi (who also had a hand in the screenplay) and shot in beautiful widescreen by Juan Gelpi, it was filmed in Spain particularly around Almeria which gives the desert scenery a very spaghetti western feel (along with a host of familiar voices dubbing the European actors). The shots of Las Vegas & Los Angeles (including a nifty sequence at Angels Flight) were done separately with none of the principal actors (and most of it done in obvious rear-projection). The Las Vegas footage is spectacular with glorious views of a pre-theme park Vegas complete with marquees hyping Juliet Prowse in Sweet Charity at Ceasars, Dean Martin in the Copa Room, Jimmy Durante at The Desert Inn, and topless revues at The Sahara all followed by a steak dinner at Mr. Porterhouse. 

Gary Lockwood was in the midst of a great run in this period including 2001: A SPACE ODESSEY (1968), MODEL SHOP (1968), and the underrated western FIRECREEK (1968). A handsome brooding actor, even when playing a decent guy he always seemed to have a sullen intensity smoldering underneath.  In his scenes with Elke Sommer (here improbably playing an American but who the heck cares its Elke Sommer) there's a vague hinting of S&M in their relationship and one gets the feeling there's something more (or less) than love going on here. Through the film, it is left vague as to whether Tony is simply using her in order to get close to Skorsky.



Itis odd seeing Palance play a character on the law & order side of things, but this brings am ambiguity to his role as it's always in the back of your mind on his true motives are.  Both him and Lee J. Cobb both were lending their names and faces to various Italian productions at the time and both of them bring some gravity to proceedings as after the initial prison escape it seems to take on a more light-hearted tone but then gets progressively darker. It is pretty cool to see Jean Servais from the all-time classic heist RIFIFI film show up.   

The film features a great jazz-tinged soundtrack moving around cool, sexy, and thrilling sounds and is way overdue for a new release. Long unavailable and hard to see except for occasional showings on TCM, this now available on DVD through Warner Archive. 






















Sunday, October 18, 2020

FIGHTING MAD 1976



"When You Push Too far, Even A Peaceful Man Gets Fighting Mad"



   The third of three movies Jonathan Demme (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) directed for Roger Corman, this followed CAGED HEAT (1974) and CRAZY MAMA (1975). Even though it was written by Demme (along with CAGED  HEAT), FIGHTING MAD had the most "work for hire" feel to it of all his Corman productions. Demme, even in his later work tended to be at his best when he focused on quirky characters and small-town oddballs such as in MELVIN AND HOWARD and in the underrated & unknown CITIZENS BAND. He also always seemed to favor strong female characters which one can see in CAGED HEAT and even in the sometimes silly & wacky CRAZY MAMA.
    Part of Corman's deal with 20th Century Fox which meant that Roger had a bit more money than usual for his productions that made for a slicker and bigger looking film (sometimes for the better & sometimes not), FIGHTING MAD mixes in some 70's Whole Earth Catalog ecology along with the then-popular hicksplotation (although here lacking moonshine), revenge such as WALKING TALL and BILLY JACK along with independent salt-of-the-earth folks fighting greedy corporations. 
     Stoic Tom Hunter (Peter Fonda (THE WILD ANGELS) travels back to his small Arkansas hometown with his young son. Through his monologue to his son, we learn that he's divorced and leaving "the big city" as he hated living there and his wife wouldn't leave with him. Returning to the family farm he finds his father Jeff (John Doucette PATTON) and his brother Charlie (a young Scott Glenn billed here as Scott Glen) engaged in battle with a greedy land developer Pierce Crabtree (TV actor Phillip Carey) who heads up the appropriately named Crabtree Corp. Seemingly wanting to run roughshod over the entire area Crabtree is busy throwing up shopping malls and adding strip mines while forcing the local townsfolk off their land at a fraction of its value while enlisting the help of the corrupt local law enforcement and hired strong-arm goons.




   Wasting no time in kicking things into gear Tom is back in town barely one day before his brother and sister-in-law are killed in a fiery car crash after being piled with liquor and he begins a relationship with his old flame Lorene Maddox (Lynn Lowry I DRINK YOUR BLOOD). The spineless & corrupt sheriff (Harry Northup BOXCAR BERTHA) along with Crabtree dismiss the crash as a "drunken accident" and when the shifty realtors show up at the family farm with legal paperwork and a model of the proposed shopping mall they plan to build on the families farmland Tom smashes the model and clobbers the evil realtors with a hoe. 
    With a film like this, you know what's coming and the way the plot unfolds and the character's motivation and reaction to the unfolding events that make it either work or not. Fonda was always an interesting actor and watching him balance his initial laid-back persona with his later vengeance-seeking righteous-driven character is interesting although the constant brooding and simmering anger go on too long sometimes (along with shots of earthmoving equipment & strip mines). Watching him commandeer a bulldozer to break-up a neighbors house repossession or calmy kill off the land developers in their expansive home with a bow and arrow is loads of fun. Crabtree and his posse of crooks seem to live together in a swanky ultra-modern house with interiors that look to be from a Playboy photoshoot. The bow & arrow is a bit perplexing it does reinforce the back-to-nature wronged man protecting his land and the way of life. The sequences of families being evicted by the developers and the bulldozing of their homes bring to mind the depression era and the WPA photographs of the '30s. As to be expected the action sequences and Fonda "putting it to man" are the best parts of the film. 
    The film's pacing is kind of choppy and sometimes has trouble keeping consistent pacing. Just when the action starts ramping up Fonda goes into a bar and broods for a while or stops by for a roll in the hay with Lynn Lowry. The secondary characters including Douchette and the young Scott Glenn all bring a sense of grounded realism to their characters and Carey brings an atmosphere of the slimy big businessman (and ultimately thoroughly evil) that make you want to cheer on Fonda's character even more. One of my favorite actresses Lynn Lowry has a rather thankless role here but as usual, brings a wonderful presence to the small role. She also contributes a couple of topless scenes that along with some bloody shootings barely nudge the film into an "R" rating by 1970's standards.
   The film bears a close approximation to New World's later BLACK OAK CONSPIRACY from 1977 and that film's producer and writer Jesse Vint would claim that he brought the story idea to New World and they "appropriated" it for FIGHTING MAD. They did later allow Vint to make his film and there is a sameness to the plots although FIGHTING MAD is a better film.  




    As mentioned before because this was one of Corman's films made in conjunction with Fox there's more of a feeling of "bigness" to the film including helicopter shots, a larger cast, and the use of actual Arkansas locations that work much better than the usual So. Cal. locations for New World films.  
   The schizophrenic music score by longtime Fonda friend and collaborator Bruce Langhorne is all over the map with banjo themed moments for the family and farm scenes and a jarring electronic score for the action sequences. There's also the classic plaintive harmonica the pops up every time somebody dies that we care about. 
   Not a great movie but a film that does what it's supposed to do and thanks to Fonda's performance which brings quiet simmering anger to the character rather than the over-the-top bloody revenge that's the usual hallmark of these films. 
   Available on DVD from Shout Factory with Charles S. Duplin's interesting MOVING VIOLATION which has a rare leading man and nice guy role for Stephen Mchattie and the always welcome Kay Lenz.