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Flash Festival Preview, 7-15: '70s Film Groove
Back to 42nd Street with Lustig at Anthology

Promoting "Fear is the Key," Michael Tuchner's 1973 film. Image courtesy Anthology Film archives.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

One summer in 1975, I remember walking down to the Grand Theater (which, need it be said, no longer was) on San Francisco's Mission Street for a marathon of all five "Planet of the Apes" films. While the theaters on 42nd Street may have been similarly grungy, and the atmosphere chaotic, with kids playing and throwing popcorn at each other, the fare often had higher stakes: In my one foray into this sacred terrain, Paul Schrader's paene to unions "Blue Collar," starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel, was the sinuous offering.

So when Anthology Film Archives says it is revisiting that epoch tonight through July 25, don't be deceived; the 10 films curated by auteur William Lustig may be humbler in their scope than the Hollywood blockbusters that often crowd more interesting films off the circuit these days, but they are also more nuanced and complex in their themes and their tricky resolutions, if the six films I previewed over the last two weeks, in my own mini-marathon, are any hint.

James Frawley's 1973 "Kid Blue" starts out inauspiciously, with a failed attempt at a train robbery -- one of the marauders falls off the top of a train car he's just landed on -- and, when the hero of the title appears in blue overalls, the fashion of the era of the film's creation seeming to seep into the era of its setting 100 years prior, it seems like it might be headed into silly-land, but if I told you the hero with the long blonde tresses was a kid named Dennis Hopper, you might start to expect something different, and you'd be right. After the botched heist, Hopper's 'Kid Blue' decides it's time to go straight, and heads to the hamlet of Dime Box, Texas to seek gainful employment. Just when you're thinking, "Easy Rider Goes West," up pops Western icon Ben Johnson as the first obstacle in the Kid's path, a sheriff who doesn't trust strangers and does everything but egg Hopper into breaking the peace so he can tell him to get out of town before sundown. But the Kid chills, withstanding client abuse as a barbershop hand, hot furnace work in the town's booming first factory, which makes tchotchkes, a job in a chicken abattoir which he practices with inefficient overkill, striking his prey several times with an axe, and seduction by his best friend's wife until finally ceding to his inner outlaw and conspiring with remnants of the local Indian tribe to rob the company safe on pay-day, riding off into the sunset when Johnson's gun stalls. Oh, and along the way, he tries to flee in a Rube Goldbergesque flying-machine, the part of Rube, in this case a wayward pastor, being played by none other than the signature quirky character actor of the '70s, Peter Boyle.

I don't know whether this represents a deliberate curatorial choice, but "Kid Blue" (which screens tomorrow at 9:30 p.m. and next Friday at 7) isn't the only Western on the program with an airplane. The second just would have to show up in the 1968 spaghetti Western "The Mercenary" (showing tomorrow at 4:45 p.m., Tuesday at 7 p.m., and Monday July 25 at 9 p.m.) starring the iron man of the genre, Franco Nero. Clint Eastwood may have made the most memorable films in the category, but Nero seeded the terrain. Nero, director Sergio Carbucci, and the actual locations of the film may all be from Italy, and the setting Mexico, but that doesn't stop his character from being called "The Pollack," a mercenary who makes a mercenary alliance with a would-be revolutionary (Tony Musante). The evil Colonel Garcia, meanwhile, cuts a deal with the deadly dandy Curly, played, 'natch, by Jack Palance, out for revenge on the revolutionary and 'The pollack" for killing his brother. When they sack the fortress town the revolutionary has captured with the aid of the Pollack thanks to the use of an airplane that appears from nowhere and starts bombing the town, Garcia turns to Curly and says, "Brilliant advice to get the plane!" This is before the Pollack shoots it down with his Winchester, of course... There's also a lust-inspiring but principled revolutionista of course (Giovanna Ralli) to round out the picture and, to seal the deal, a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone to help elevate this spaghetti Western to Sergio Leone territory.

Franco Nero and Tony Musante in Sergio Corbucci's 1968 "The Mercenary." Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Morricone opted for a pen-name when he inked the score for Corbucci's 1966 "Navajo Joe," and no wonder. Notwithstanding part-Indian Burt Reynolds plainspoken interpretation of the stereo-typically drawn title character -- a sort of poor-man's Clint out for revenge against the murderous gangster (Aldo Sambrell) -- here Corbucci pushes the violence to levels that are implausible, but not outlandish enough to be funny; at one point, Sambrell responds to the town priest's thanking him for sparing his parishioners by gunning him down. The music, which centers around the refrain of "Navajo Joe!", is not quite up to Morricone's standards; even the dubbed-in voices are not over-acted enough to inspire hilarity. And this is before we get to Navajo Joe's inauthentic disrespect for what looks like an Indian burial ground. ("Navajo Joe" screens tomorrow at 2:45 p.m., Tuesday July 19 at 9:15, and Monday July 25 at 7.)

Continuing with Clint as a handy '70s action-genre reference, among the modern crime stories Lustig's programmed, "Fear is the Key" is either unintentionally hilarious or a serious thriller, depending on how willing you are to suspend disbelief. (I was.) Barry Newman is John Talbot, a sort of Jewish Clint, complete with white man's 'fro in this complicated 1973 yarn from Michael Tuchner. After the opening scene (spoiler alert for this whole mini-review) in which a plane piloted by Talbot's brother is gunned down in flight while Talbot's talking to his wife, a passenger in the plane -- probably downed because of a mysterious cargo -- for the next 45 minutes it's hard to figure out what's going on, or rather why it is. Talbot next shows up in a roadside Louisiana diner, where he quickly gets himself arrested for trying to drink bourbon on a Sunday. A trial ensues in which the judge identifies Newman as a notorious international killer. He escapes by shooting a guard and kidnapping a cute blonde woman, and a half-hour chase along highways and bayous, ferries and marshlands ensues, until Talbot runs head on into a disgraced former New York City cop, Jablonsky (Dolph Sweet), who hauls him and the girl to the wealthy industrialist who just happens to be her father. He, it turns out, is being manipulated by the evil Vyland -- played with cool relish by Clint's habitual nemesis John Vernon -- who, in turn, wants Talbot to fix their submarine so they can dive for the ruins of an airplane.... They ask Jablonsky to stick around and guard Talbot (best line in the film: Vernon's to Sweet: "Shut up, Jablonsky!"), but it turns out they're working together, so the former let's the latter sneak out for a night to investigate the ship to which the sub is moored; on Talbot's return, he discovers Vyland's cold-blooded killer ally Royale (Ben Kingsley) in the process of burying Jablonsky. At this point Talbot slips into the daughter (Suzy Kendall)'s room and confesses that the whole thing has been a set-up, he's actually the good guy... She believes him and the whole thing climaxes when Newman takes Vernon and Kingsley down in the submarine and, on landing it by the downed plane, from which two skeletons peer out -- Vernon wants the 85 million in IMF funds the plane was transporting, we finally learn -- announces that there's his brother on the left and that there's his wife on the right, and his three-year-old son is somewhere in there too, before switching a button and, as bubbles start bubbling up from the sub, announces, "In six minutes we'll run out of air," explaining he won't turn it back on until Vernon tells him who shot down the plane and who killed Jablonsky. With time running out, Vernon confesses he did the former and clasps Kingsley to try to get him to admit to the latter, whereupon Kingsley shoots him in the belly. Finally, with only six seconds of air left and Newman writhing on the floor, Kingsley drops his gun and with his last breath gasps out, "I killed Jablonsky," as Newman switches the air on just in time. ("Fear is the Key" runs tonight at 9:15, Monday at 7 p.m., and next Thursday at 9.)

You're probably about ready for air now too, and I couldn't imagine a lighter reprieve than Aram Avakian's 1973 "Cops and Robbers," starring Cliff Gorman and the mother of all New York City B movie actors, Joseph Bologna, as NYC cops who decide that their ill-paying jobs ($42 a day) put them in a prime position to pull of a much bigger one. They ask a Mafia mobster if there's anything he's particularly interested in buying, he suggests, "Go into bonds," they do and, in a fast-moving exchange of double-crosses at the finish played out in a police car - bike chase (the bikes are chasing the police car) through Central park at the end, you can guess who wins. The writing races too, thanks to Donald Westlake (who scripted my favorite line ever in this genre of '70s heist comedies: "Afghanistan Bananistan"). And for a real slice of '70s NY ambiance, from gritty Manhattan to lolling about in swimming pools in joined Queens backyards, you can't do better. ("Cops and Robbers" screens Sunday at 9 p.m., Saturday July 23 at 7 p.m., and Sunday July 24 at 5 p.m.)

You can, however, do grittier, and Larry Pearce's black and white 1967 "The Incident" provides this with a setting that is as seedy as the cast is star-studded. As New Yorkers trapped in a subway car with two punks straight out of Israel Horovitz's "Indian Wants the Bronx" (in their first films, Tony Musante and Martin Sheen, the latter channeling Charlie on crack), all of whose stories are revealed as they make their way to the fatal train, mostly in pairs, to board a sort of Noah's arc of archetypal NY characters of the era. We get, in addition to Sheen and Musante, Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Jan Sterling, Brock Peters, Jack Gilford, Donna Mills, Gary Merrill, Thelma Ritter (in her last role), and even, as a harried father and husband who wouldn't spring for a taxi, heeeeeeeeeeere's Ed McMahon. The story, with strong echoes of the Kitty Genovese tragedy -- when neighbors in Queens reportedly declined to come to the aid of the 28-year-old women as she was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964 -- also riffs on the theme of couples tested and transformed when put through the crucible, in this case the torture coming from the young villains. They aren't totally passive. "Mr. Looper" (as Big Bird called the character Gilford would later play on "Sesame Street") exceeds his age in standing up to the incorrigibles, almost alone. Bridges, in a slow-simmering star turn as a soldier returning from the Vietnam war, finally defeats the punks, despite one arm being out of commission. But the film still serves as a troubling post-Genovese examination of the phenomenon of the not so good Samaritan. And Pearce's raw direction makes it an ample reflection of Anthology's interest in the auteur. ("The Incident" plays Wednesday, July 20 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, July 24 at 9 p.m.)

Also on the program of William Lustig Presents are "Villain," starring Richard Burton, "The Super Cops," with Ron Leibman and David Selby, "The Last Run," and, inevitably, "The Brinks Job."

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