Monday, February 10, 2020


"There's No Such Thing as a Free Ride!"

    Distributed by legendary exploitation producer Harry Novak's Boxoffice International this is one of the numerous low-budget films that proliferated post-Manson/peace & love 60's that dealt with the dangers of being "on the road" and the perils associated with hitchhiking. Flatly directed with the feel of PSA warning film gone horribly wrong, it's a ramshackle down & dirty little film which nether the less tries to bring something more to the foreground in as far as the main character's mental state and motives.
  Startlingly opening with black screen while sounds of violent struggle are heard, next to a cautionary folksy song kicks in "But there's daaaaanger on the road....Danger on the road...When you go thumbing a ride.."  and then a screaming female victim falls into the screen behind the opening credits. Somewhat nerdy (and twitchy) Howard "Howie" Martin (Robert Gribbin TRIP WITH TEACHER) spends his days traversing long stretches of Southern Calif. roadways delivering dry cleaning out of a van while picking up the world's oldest looking "teenage" hitchhikers. Once inside the van, Howard questions his new passengers inquiring about their relationship with their mother. If it turns out they're running away things go bad really quick, but if it's just a lift or a ride home they need it's no problem as nice-guy Howard delivers them safe and sound.

    He periodically suffers blackouts and lapses in time judgment that causes his grouchy boss Mr. Baldwin (character actor John Harmon from THE MONSTER OF PIEDRAS BLANCAS & THE UNHOLY ROLLERS along with 266 other acting credits) to constantly threaten to fire him while pretty co-worker Phyllis feels sorry for him. At home, Howard lives with his mother (Dorothy Bennett) and some years ago his sister ran away from home never to return. This caused his mother great anguish which in turn manifests itself in Howard's growing psychological issues which are only comforted by a prodigious intake of root beer floats and working on car models. Howie's increased twitchiness along with staring bug-eyed at screaming newspaper headlines about the murders and frequent lapses in time-management doesn't cause any undue alarm for anybody (with his boss only concerned with his tardiness) and his mom keeping up a healthy supply of advice and root beer.
    Unexpectedly the film shows Howard to have a healthy relationship with his mother. She genuinely cares about him and shows none of the over-bearing motherly suffocation nor does she hammer a weird sexual psychosis into him. As a matter of fact, for a movie concerning a serial killer, there's a very easy-going laid-back feel to the film as people spend a lot of time just hanging out in the office or their homes talking. The killings are handled quickly with jarring camerawork which is hard to tell if it's based on incompetency and a try for "artiness". At one point Howie picks up a gay hitchhiker (which in the hands of a more daring director could have really led down a rabbit hole) and there's a young child involved at one point which leads the film to a very dark & disturbing place at its climax which none the less is very low key and somber.

    Once the police get the idea that a serial killer is trolling through the area their presence is represented by Capt. Shaw (Russell Johnson from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) and Lt. Davis (Randy Echols) who spend most of the time hanging out in the Crescent City police station ("this is home of the largest population of teenage runaways") and engage in Jack Webb-like dialogue ("It seems there are delinquent parents just as delinquent children"). A good deal of time is also spent with Davis at his home where he and his wife discuss whether it's a good idea to bring a child into the world. 
    One of the victims is even given quite an involved backstory involving her parents and the film does attempt to give most of the secondary characters something to do (even it is just sitting around & talking). There's also more time than expected given to show the escalating collapse of Howie's mental state, but with all these added peripherals to the plot, it never strays too far from its exploitation intent.
   Filmed around Encino on the western edge of the San Fernando Valley (where I'm sure now are endless rows of subdivisions) the film has a dry, desolate look to it with Howie's delivery area ranging to the far reaches of civilization. Filmed with the no-nonsense look of an educational warning film i.e. "Don't Hitchhike!" it has a look of an episode of ADAM-12 or DRAGNET which makes the violence seem all the more startling. The two detectives even engage in some DRAGNET style gesturing and pointing at a crime scene and all the bedrooms look suspiciously like a motel room. But hey, where else are you going to see the professor from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND track down a serial killer??
   Expect for Russell Johnson and Robert Gribbin the rest of the cast is pretty much one and done after this film and director Irvin Berwick who had a career going back to the mid-1940s would retire after his next film MALIBU HIGH in 1979. There's an excellent video feature about him by Stephen Thrower on the Arrow Blu-ray that mentions his connections to Universal horror movies, the JFK assassination, and several soft and hardcore features. The singer featured in the film's soundtrack is Nancy Adams who at the same time as this was also working on the soundtrack to Disney's ROBIN HOOD. The soundtrack itself is a curious mishmash of styles from folksy-country to ominous orchestral cues, including a library track that will be instantly familiar to fans of David Cronenberg's RABID.
   Re-released several times during the '70s with a reported start date initially in the late '60s, it shared a double feature with KIDNAPPED COED (with was released by Severin on Blu).

Monday, February 3, 2020


The James Garner Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews

      DUEL AT DIABLO opens and closes with a bloody knife slicing through the screen to reveal the credits and in-between is a bloody & violent story of bigotry and racism that while adding elements that are coming more to the forefront in the cinema of the '60s (blood, violence & sex), keeps it's foot firmly rooted in the classic Hollywood western. Director & producer Ralph Nelson doesn't so much drag the traditional western into the '60s but makes for what all intents are a classic western but mixes in some more adult themes in the plot while adding darkness & conflict to the lead characters. Like most American westerns made in this time period, it already shows the influence of the Euro-westerns that were beginning to gain an audience. Nelson would really bring the violence to the forefront in his infamous SOLDIER BLUE in 1970
     This was the first western that James Garner did following his successful run on the TV series MAVERICK and his character here is a far cry from the easy-going Brett Maverick and along with his next western, the John Sturges HOUR OF THE GUN (1967) where he played a vengeance-driven Wyatt Earp they both probably appealed to him with the darker lead characters.
    Opening on a sun-baked desert with opening credits containing a rather odd psychedelic look to them (more than a couple films of this era have an unfortunate font choice) with the title card proudly proclaims "Ralph Nelson's DUEL AT DIABLO". We see cavalry scout Jess Remsberg (Garner) who finds a figure strung upside down over a smoldering fire which is seen in gruesome close-up is a foretelling of the sometimes brutal story to come. He then spies a lone figure being pursued by several Apaches and upon rescuing he finds it to be a white woman. He brings her to the nearest army post and arriving there discovers she's Ellen Grange (Igmar Bergman regular Bibi Andersson) who was captured by the Apache,  then escaped and was attempting to get back to them to be with her child whom she had with one of them. None of this sits too well with the townspeople and in particular, her husband Willard (Dennis Weaver TERROR ON THE BEACH) who tells her "any decent woman would've killed herself".

     We're then introduced to the cavalry troop commander Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers GORGO) and ex-cavalry Sgt. named Toller (Sidney Poitier BUCK AND THE PREACHER). This desperate group finds themselves thrown together in a climactic battle of attrition with a band of Apaches who are after a shipment of ammunition being escorted by McAllister. We also learn that that Garner's Remsberg is hunt down and kill the person responsible for the death (and scalping) of his Apache wife. The script was written by Marvin H. Albert (from his novel Apache Rising) brings all these elements and the characters' connections to them along with each other together at the climax.
    Ellen Grange is treated horribly by both the town folks and the Apache and their leader Chata (John Hoyt THE BIG COMBO) blames her for the death of his son (who's the father of her baby). She seems to have no allegiance to either world as she simply cares for her child. Like ULZANA'S RAID from later in 1975, DUEL doesn't downplay the cruelty of the Apaches (although ULZANA'S RAID was much more graphic in its depiction). Only Garner's character seems to show any real attempt to understand the Apache and why they escaped from the reservation to begin their raid.  In the film's final moments, he ruefully says to himself "why on earth would they ever want to stay there..."

   It's interesting that Poitier's race is never brought up or even mentioned during the course of the film. At the film's climactic battle, the soldiers defer to his judgment with McAllister noting "you were a pretty good Sgt. once". Dressed in a fancy suit and chomping on a cigar his character makes a contrast to the bedraggled look of the others. Poitier also appeared in the western BUCK AND THE PREACHER and he seemed to fit nicely into the western genre. Although they only share a couple of scenes together he has a nice rapport with Garner (they team-up for a fight at one point to save Ellen Grange from a violent gang rape) and it kind of makes you wish they had teamed for another film.
   Garner at the time was trying to break away from his nice-guy image and his Jess Remsberg is almost the direct opposite of Brett Maverick. Unshaven, raw & dusty and handy with a gun and like in HOUR OF THE GUN he's driven by revenge. The same year also appears in GRAND PRIX as another "driven" (so to speak) character but for fame not revenge, but at the core not that far from Jess Remsberg. Ironically he would return to his Brett Maverick type-persona (although with a gun) in the two highly enjoyable "Support Your.." westerns in the early '70s.
    They are two well-staged and violently bloody action sequences that show little of the glory or heroics of battle. The soldiers are driven slowly back into the box canyon while being picked off one by one and left to die. Although they are shown as savage, the Apache is also shown as savage with a reason and a  purpose (although as mentioned only Remsberg seems to realize this), and in the end, it's left to the conclusion that the cycle will repeat itself soon.

    Although the role of Ellen Grange could have easily taken by any number of American actresses (Angie Dickinson comes to mind) Andersson was probably added to help with the European box office. Although she doesn't get to do much, she brings a quiet dignity to her role and there's a hint at developing romance between her and Garner. Her role can be compared to Candice Bergen's in Nelson's later SOLDIER BLUE. Bill Travers was a Shakespearean stage actor and with his commanding voice, he brings a touch of the Bard to his gruff cavalry commands. Weaver at the time was also best known for his role on TV with his long-running Chester on GUNSMOKE and like Garner seems to relish playing a darker persona.
     Filmed in the arid area around Kanab, Utah (a popular Western production location), it was shot by Charles F. Wheeler who had previously hap been the DP a couple of Twilight Zones and would go on to a long career in TV and motion pictures. The jangly theme music by Neal Hefti seems more suited to the comedies he usually scored but the Apaches have an interesting guitar-driven theme.
    Oddly the film contains a couple of foreshadowing's to BLAZING SADDLES as a horse is punched at one point and the role of the Apache leader Chata is played by Jewish actor John Hoyt. There are a few familiar faces lurking around including perennial heavy John Crawford (NIGHT MOVES) as a slimy sheriff, Willan Redfield (FANTASTIC VOYAGE) as a Sgt. and director Nelson (billed as Alf Elson) pops up at the end as an officer.