Tag Archives: 1960s

“The Lord is Sabata…” The Polished but Familiar Sequel ADIÓS, SABATA

ADIÓS, SABATA


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(2.5/5)

Pros: Memorable ending, quirky details and a nice sense of scale


Cons: Extremely familiar story that makes it very nearly a remake of the first Sabata film

The somewhat strange middle entry in the Sabata Trilogy, 1970’s Adiós Sabata sees actor Yul Brynner take over the title role from Lee Van Cleef (who coincidentally couldn’t do this film because he was replacing Brynner in a Magnificent Seven sequel). This time around, the titular gunfighter joins forces with Mexican revolutionaries and an prankster American named Ballantine to steal a wealth of gold from an Austrian colonel hiding out south of the US border. Predictably, the plot to capture the gold (initiated by a guerrilla leader who’s trying to fund an uprising against Austrian emperor Maximilian I) doesn’t go exactly to plan – after capturing a wagon supposedly transporting the treasure, Sabata and his partners discover that they’ve been fooled into stealing a cart full of sand and are forced to come up with a more decisive plan of attack. This eventually leads to an all-out assault on the colonel’s fortress, but can Sabata really trust any of his sneaky co-conspirators considering that they all have their own motives and ambitions?

adios!
Sabata (in all black) discusses his plans with his compadres.

Compared to the first Sabata film, this sequel is probably a more serious affair, mostly due to the fact that Brynner takes an entirely different approach to the main character than did Van Cleef. While there was a playfulness to Van Cleef’s Sabata, an almost emotionless Brynner (sporting an all-black get-up and a continual scowl) is all business in the part and definitively appears like the more typical (and hence, somewhat tiresome) Italo-western protagonist. Due to his stoic performance, the tone of this sequel is a bit off: the same team of writers (Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini, who also directed) wrote both these films, the first of which played almost as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Spaghetti Western genre. Adiós Sabata, originally planned as a standalone film dealing with a character named “Indio Black,” never quite seems to decide whether it wants to be a more serious film or a comic one. Parolini and Izzo throw in quite a few slightly offbeat and/or goofy details, but Brynner’s no-nonsense attitude doesn’t really allow a viewer to really buy into the efforts at comedy.

Austrians in Mexico?
Gerard Herter as Colonel Skimmel of Austria. Though the idea of Austrians in Mexico circa 1867 being the villains of this story seems odd, it’s historically accurate.


One of the more confusing aspects of this film is that a number of the same cast who appeared in the first Sabata film show up in this sequel in entirely different roles. This takes a bit of getting used to: at first, I was under the impression that the writers were trying to make a sequel that (gasp!) was generally consistent with the first film (albeit with a different actor in the title role), but it soon became apparent that there’s about no connection in the story between the original Sabata and this second series entry. That said, one could definitely make the argument that Adiós Sabata is very nearly a remake of the first film. The main villain of the piece (the Austrian colonel played by Gerard Herter) comes across as a virtual carbon copy of Stengel from the first film (hell, even the name of the Austrian is similar – “Skimmel”). Additionally, the Ballantine character (played as a conniving jokester by musician-turned-actor Dean Reed) seems almost identical to the Banjo character in the first film, and the returning Ignazio Spalla, playing another buffoonish Mexican who acts as Sabata’s main partner in crime, performs essentially the same duty that he did in the first film. Considering that Izzo and Parolini’s script isn’t exactly the most original thing I’ve ever seen in the first place, the fact that we’re getting mostly the same exact thing this second time around makes this sequel all the more disappointing and questionable.

musician Dean Reed
Dean Reed as Ballantine, the smart-ass gringo who may just run off with the gold himself.

On the plus side, Parolini’s handling of the direction seems a bit more sure-handed during this film. The original Sabata had a handful of stylish moments that suggested that Parolini did have some nifty tricks in his repertoire, but more often than not, the director played it relatively safe. Adiós Sabata sees Parolini let loose a few times with some eye-popping visuals and wild camera moves (check out the swirling camera suggesting the feeling of jubilation when Sabata and his crew first get their hands on what they think is gold) and also seems to have a more grandiose sense of scale. Contrary to the confined nature of the first film, the sequel features quite a few scenes filmed in extreme long shots in rather expansive locations which are nicely captured by cinematographer Sandro Mancori. Thus, the picture (boosted by a fine music score from the always-reliable Bruno Nicolai) feels bigger and more spectacular, even if the story leaves a lot to be desired.

Superb location photography
This sequel features superb location photography and a more grandiose sense of scale than the first Sabata film.

I love some of the quirky, eccentric details in the film – the mute gunslinger who’s claim to fame is his ability to fling rocks at his opponent with his feet; the handful of scenes where a gunfight erupts immediately after a cowboy stops his tap-dancing routine – and it’s not hard to see why this offbeat film was a favorite of Quentin Tarantino. The entire last act of the film is actually pretty impressive, with the loud and exciting raid on the colonel’s fortress being followed up by a genuinely clever final scene which is rather funny and positively memorable in the history of this genre. Even if it’s difficult to deny that the film saves its best ideas for last, I can’t help but wish some of this inspiration had found its way into earlier scenes in the movie which are pretty formulaic and forgettable. A little spark early on would have gone a long way in making this picture better as a whole.


The film’s ending is outstanding…I just wish there were more genuine highlights on the way there.


Admittedly, a western has to be pretty outstanding for me to really fall in love with it – I usually find this genre of films to be relatively dull and predictable. Adiós Sabata is one that’s very watchable but nothing special: there are certainly some unique elements to this film, enough weird details to keep things interesting, and generally enjoyable acting performances (even if the English language dubbing is sometimes quite sketchy), but nothing can make up for the fact that everything in the film seems very familiar. Director Parolini was clearly capable as a filmmaker, but he simply doesn’t seem to possess the level of inspiration that led directors like Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci to produce what are easily the best films of the Spaghetti Western genre. The Sabata films then are better than many of the cheapo programmer westerns that were pumped out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and probably would be worth a look for genre fans, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to track any of them down.

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Nice-looking widescreen DVD from 20th Century Fox as part of the Sabata Trilogy package offers no extras. This film can also be on amazon.



5/10 : Standard western gun violence with brief glimpses of gore.


1/10 : Maybe a few isolated instances of rough language; nothing major.

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0/10 : Sabata doesn’t hang out too  much in the brothel this time around.



3/10 : Even with some eccentricity to it, this doesn’t hold up to the best of the Spaghetti Western genre.


“Well gentlemen, it’s been fun, but I can’t waste any more time. I wanna wish you all the…uh…very best of luck, especially you Escudo. You’re going to have a hard time convincing the revolutionaries that you didn’t steal the gold. And you know what’ll happen – I’m afraid that you must just end up dripping the fat into the fire, with an apple up your big mouth and a spit up your caboose…”

“The Devil Rides With You…” SABATA

SABATA

(3/5)

Pros: Lee Van Cleef; some decent action down the stretch

Cons: Villains aren’t particularly threatening at any point; feels small-scale when compared to the best Italo-westerns

A few years after Italian producer Alberto Grimaldi and director Sergio Leone had wrapped up the so-called “Dollars Trilogy” with 1966’s magnificent The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Grimaldi attempted to replicate the success of Leone’s trilogy with another one revolving around a pretty familiar western anti-hero. 1969’s Sabata deals with the titular character who initially seems to be a sort of avenger figure who becomes involved in a bank robbery plot in a small Texas town. After returning the safe containing $100,000 that was stolen in the heist, the cool and collected Sabata seems content to accept a $5000 reward for his heroic actions, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s a little less cut and dry of a hero than that when he blackmails the town officials responsible for the robbery for an ever-increasing amount of money. This, of course, doesn’t sit well with these folks who have no intention of paying Sabata off; instead, the crooked banker who devised the robbery in the first place seeks to hire various assassins to dispose of Sabata. As is typically the case in Spaghetti Westerns, this is easier said than done. Even as he’s dealing with the assassins, Sabata (with help from a somewhat buffoonish Civil War vet and an acrobatic mute) works up his own plan to eliminate the despicable town officials once and for all – but what role will a mysterious gunfighter known only as “Banjo” play in the unfolding action and more importantly, whose side will he end up on?

Sabata and his companions
Sabata enforcing his authority over his companions.

Written by Renato Izzo and Gianfranco Parolini (who also directed), Sabata provides exactly what one would expect from an Italian western of this era. The cunning main character finds himself in a variety of potentially hairy situations, yet manages to find a way out of the danger by using his cleverness and skills as a gunfighter. Considering that this same type of story had been done time and again around this period in which literally hundreds of Italian westerns flooded cinemas, I might have expected Parolini’s film to provide something a little outside the norm to really hook a viewer. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case: while a director like Sergio Corbucci was able to give life to his 1966 Django by overloading the film with violent action and also make the extremely bleak 1968 film The Great Silence one of the most outstanding Italian westerns ever made through use of a great gimmick (namely, the fact that the master gunfighter main character couldn’t speak), Parolini mostly seems to have been going through the motions making Sabata.


Lee Van Cleef: Western anti-hero extraordinaire.

Though the film is appropriately gritty and features a windblown setting that appears genuinely desperate, for the most part, Sabata seems uninspired: Parolini (working with cinematographer Sandro Mancori) does manage to create some visual interest by focusing on idiosyncratic details, but his scene composition is more often cluttered and clumsy. There’s no sense of purpose to many of his shots, and Sabata plays almost as the antithesis of a Leone western in this regard. The color scheme is also very drab, dominated by grays and browns – this fits the mood and tone of the story but doesn’t make the picture any more eye-catching to watch. By the time the big slam-bang finale turns up, I was mostly disinterested in a film that simply didn’t offer much to distinguish itself from dozens of obviously similar pictures and stories, and any amount of pyrotechnics and gunfire during the final ten minutes can’t really make up for the mostly forgettable hour and a half that preceded it.

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I appreciated the level of detail in the film, but it’s nowhere near as polished as Spaghettis directed by Leone or Corbucci.

The most damning thing about the film in my opinion is the fact that the villains here simply don’t seem all that threatening. A rancher named Stengel is the obvious main bad guy, but as portrayed by Franco Ressel, he comes across as an incredibly meek banker-type who has a condescending view on the rest of humanity (we’re not-so-subtly introduced to the character while he’s reading a book entitled Inequality is the Basis of Society so his motivations are in plain sight right out of the gate). This guy doesn’t seem capable of doing much except talking somebody to death through use of holier-than-thou rhetoric, and his partners in crime (namely a rotund tavern owner and sheepish judge) are equally as ineffectual. The more rough-and-tumble western villains who actually performed the robbery are taken out of the picture early on in the story, meaning that the script has to introduce a series of basically throw-away potential assassins who try and gun Sabata down throughout the film. These skirmishes are fleeting and almost irrelevant: there’s no sense of surprise or tension here, and Sabata’s inevitable conflict with Banjo (played capably by William Berger, who looks ridiculous sporting what seems to be a moppy red-haired wig) doesn’t do much to alleviate the sensation that this film needs a more obvious and aggressive villain character.

Banjo
Banjo’s gimmick.

On the plus side, having the inimitable Lee Van Cleef as your main character means that it’s hard for a viewer to lose interest in Sabata even if the film as a whole isn’t all that compelling or unique. Van Cleef is simply magnetic as he scowls, snarls, chuckles dementedly, and barks out lines with pronounced intensity, and since most viewers probably would have previously seen him play some of the most nefarious villains in western film history, it’s very easy to buy into his Sabata as an anti-hero. Ultimately, Van Cleef’s performance is the one reason why this film would be honestly recommendable to fans of the genre (his interactions with Berger’s “Banjo” character are particularly good), but I actually enjoyed the supporting work provided by Italian actor Ignazio Spalla as Sabata’s main sidekick quite a bit as well. Spalla is a big, burly, grubby-looking fellow: the perfect character actor to cast in a western, and his jovial, slightly goofy behavior throughout the film provides a nice contrast to Van Cleef’s no-nonsense attitude. Aldo Canti, meanwhile, appears in an almost slapstick sort of role as a mute Amer-Indian who is able to perform amusingly outrageous acrobatic maneuvers. I found this character somewhat distracting, though it does add some additional humorous material to the film.

Van Cleef and Spalla
From left: Berger, Van Cleef, and Spalla.

In the midst of all the familiar and predictable elements, Sabata has a few standout moments, including a scene in which Banjo faces off in the middle of town against a quintet of gunmen and one in which Sabata visits a priest who has instructions to kill him – Banjo providing a “requiem” at the close of the scene is one of a handful of intriguing, more quirky moments to be found but I wish there was more of them. Marcello Giombini’s music was appropriately rousing, with a catchy main theme that features peppy guitar work and Morricone-like vocal choir, but though the music and editing adds suspense and vitality to certain scenes, the main body of the film is in serious need of a pick-me-up. In the end, I’d probably consider Sabata to be a quietly comical but relatively small-scale film that fans of Van Cleef would enjoy, but may not be all that exciting for fans of the western genre in general despite its definitive “A-HA!” finale. It’s kind of strange to me (though perhaps unsurprising given the tendency for Italians to overdo it in terms of movie sequels, hence the dozens and dozens of “sequels” to Django), that this generally unremarkable original film led to two subsequent Sabata pictures; though this first film is fine as a time-waster, I don’t think it’s much of anything special.

you wanna argue with this guy?


Neither the widescreen format from 20th Century Fox nor the from Kino Lorber have any special features to speak of. Personally, I’d go for the trilogy to get more bang for your buck, but picture and sound quality are better on the Kino release.


4/10 : The expected western gun violence and a smattering of blood.


1/10 : Isolated instances of mild profanity.


2/10 : A handful of risque scenes taking place in a brothel, with implied sexual encounters and fleeting topless nudity.


5/10 : A fairly typical Italo-western that’s neither exciting or quirky enough to truly stand out from the crowd.


“I like living at the peak of excitement, for life is only worthwhile when you can face death without showing any fear. In fact, I enjoy it.”

Trailer:

Sourpuss Stone Giant Rumbles Through Feudal Japan: DAIMAJIN

DAIMAJIN

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The Complete Series or at Amazon

(3/5)

Pros: Well-done trick photography and special effects

Cons: Predictable; doesn’t satisfy either as a period samurai film or rubber monster flick

A sort of combination of a samurai period drama with Godzilla-style monster movie, the 1966 Japanese film Daimajin (also known as Majin, the Monster of Terror in its English dubbed version) fails to satisfy on either level: too predictable as a samurai flick and too downright dull to compare to the best of the Japanese monster films. Similar to the tale of the , the story takes place in feudal Japan and begins with an evil samurai (in case we’re not sure if this is the bad guy, he and his men address old women as “hags” and children as “brats,” frequently cackling maniacally for no reason whatsoever) staging a violent uprising against the lord of a small fiefdom. After killing all the family members of the ruling Hanabasa clan save a young prince and princess who miraculously escape into the mountains, the evil Samanosuke enslaves all the villagers, forcing them to pay exorbitant taxes and work tirelessly on the construction of a massive fortress. As they grow up in the mountains, the Hanabasa prince and princess learn about the mountain god Daimajin, who they believe will one day return to free the villagers from enslavement and restore the region to the rule of the Hanabasa clan. This legend doesn’t sit well with Samanosuke of course, and he sets out to capture the remaining Hanabasa family members. When he attempts to demolish the large stone statue of Daimajin however, it appears he’s finally crossed the line. The statue comes to life and embarks on a mission of vengeance, but can anyone – even the princess who willed its return – truly control the beast and stop it from destroying everything in sight?

hills
A really nice effects shot showing Daimajin resting in his mountain hideaway. Insert your own “the hills are alive” punchline here.

Produced by the Daiei Film studio as a sort of competition to the Toho studio’s incredibly popular Godzilla franchise, Daimajin attempts to combine the best elements of the popular films of the mid 1960s. Director Kimiyoshi Yoshida had previously made quite a name for himself in the Japanese swordplay film genre, having made at least six entries in the well-regarded Zatoichi series that dealt with a blind swordsman. Unfortunately, Yoshida seems to have been a bit out of his league in trying to make Daimajin into an entirely successful film on any front. The script by Tetsuo Yoshida is relentlessly slow to get going, utilizing the basic samurai film formula that, by 1966, had been thoroughly played out. The mid 1960s was a time when (in a manner similar to what Italian filmmakers were doing with the western genre) younger filmmakers were revisiting the classic samurai films and injecting them with new energy: simply copying the basic scenarios thought up by the likes of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki wasn’t going to excite audiences anymore – especially since wild and violent fare such as Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom was appearing in cinemas at the same time. In the end, Daimajin simply offers up period drama that most viewers would have seen time and time again; it’s undeniably bland.

Complimenting the problems for a viewer is the fact that the actual “monster film” content of Daimajin is minimal: it takes a good 70 minutes or more of this 90 minute film for the much-discussed titular creature to even make an appearance. The fact that this film cries wolf too many times is the biggest single flaw of the production since, compared with what Toho was doing at the time (i.e. making ludicrous kiddie movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla), Daimajin could have come across as a more adult-oriented alternative. Special effects in this film (courtesy of Yoshiyuki Kuroda) are surprisingly decent, particularly in terms of the trick photography and visual effects used to create the illusion of a giant (and extremely pissed off) stone monster. Obviously, the Daimajin is actually an actor wearing a suit, but the split-screen techniques in this film do a fine job of allowing the beast to interact with a live-action foreground. Too bad we only get about ten to fifteen minutes of the monster in the final film…

poop
Daimajin looking particularly constipated.

The version of this film that I watched was (gulp!) dubbed into English, though I have to say that the dubbing in this film wasn’t as atrocious as I expected. Certainly, the monotone voice acting alleviates much of the drama going on in the story and too often the actors voicing the villains of the piece simply made belchy, guttural grunts instead of reciting actual dialogue, but I can definitively say that I’ve seen worse dub jobs. Miwa Takada appears as the Hanabasa princess whose desperate appeal finally awakens the Daimajin and I got the feeling that her acting performance might have been pretty decent if it wasn’t for the English dubbing. Yoshihiko Aoyama portrays her brother, the prince of the Hanabasa clan, who exists as the (disappointingly lame) hero of the story. His performance was a little too wide-eyed for my taste – though in fairness, I think some of the problem was due to the weak script material he had to work with. By far, the most fun characters to watch in the film are the villains, including Ryutaro Gomi as the evil Samanosuke – check out the scene where he slices an old woman to death with a sword while contorting his face violently. I also really dug the performance of a larger actor (whose identity I can’t seem to pin down; one of the hazards of these older foreign films is that their onscreen credits are notoriously vague) as one of Samanosuke’s particularly nefarious henchmen.

Despite the fact that Daimajin is strictly mediocre as a film, it does have some noteworthy elements. I really liked some of the location filming, particularly extreme long shots of a large waterfall which the stone statue of the lifeless Daimajin overlooks. These shots, a combination of live action location footage with matte paintings, are stunning to look at. I also appreciated some of the (relatively brief) swordplay and battle sequences which are choreographed effectively and captured nicely on camera by cinematographer Fujio Morita. In the same way I would have liked more monster action, it would have been cool to see more of these skirmishes, but I suspect this production was right up against its budget cap. As much as these sequences are relatively bloodless, I was a bit surprised by an off-color torture sequence and one particularly gruesome scene that occurs near the film’s conclusion. Finally, it’s worth noting that the music score in this film was made by Akira Ifukube, the same man who composed the music for nearly every one of Toho’s Godzilla films and related monster movies. The truly shocking element about Ifukube’s score for Daimajin is that it’s very nearly identical to some of his other, highly recognizable themes. This struck me as being kind of sad – apparently, the man wasn’t given any room to really experiment when making this score – or perhaps, he was simply creatively exhausted. Either way, not a good situation for a guy who crafted some wonderful soundtrack cues over the years – Ifukube, in my mind, is the unsung hero of the entire Godzilla film series.


Just a thought…you might wanna GET THE HELL OUT OF THAT TOWER!

At the end of the day, the best I could say about Daimajin is that it’s a worthwhile but flawed experiment in combining popular Japanese film genres of its day. I could easily say that this film is better made than some of the other monster flicks of the mid 1960s – this production is leaps and bounds more impressive than any of the films in Daiei’s Gamera series for instance. That said, Daimajin isn’t nearly as fun to watch as the best that the kaiju (or Japanese monster film) genre had to offer. I truly believe that in making a darker, more violent picture, Daimajin’s producers could have tapped into a different core audience than was watching any of the other rubber suit creature features of the day, but the end result here is simply tiresome: predictable and unremarkable. Inexplicably, two additional films in the Daimajin series were produced in 1966 and released within months of one another, but as much as they may be worthwhile for fans of Japanese monster flicks who would know what they’re getting into, a viewer isn’t missing a whole lot by skipping them entirely.


Both the DVD box set from ADV films and Blu-ray package from Mill Creek contain all three Daimajin films (the original, as well as The Return of Daimajin and Wrath of Daimajin) in widescreen, with multiple language options. The original Daimajin is also available .


4/10 : Some rough swordplay and battle sequences; a brief torture scene and one gruesome death near the end. A bit of blood and gore.

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0/10 : Very minor rough language; no profanity.


0/10 : No sex, no nudity, no panty shots, nothing.


4/10 : Yes, it’s a Japanese monster movie, but this one is less downright enjoyable than most.


“The god of the mountain is angry. He will not permit this cruelty to go on any longer.” Oh, so you mean the movie’s ending soon?

TRAILER:

A Definitive but Imperfect Spectacle Picture: GRAND PRIX

GRAND PRIX

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Sound; editing, racing sequences

Cons: Acting; story

Focusing on a sport that still may be the most expensive and most outright dangerous in the world, director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the Formula One world championship as it (literally) circles around Europe, is regarded by many as the finest auto racing movie ever made. I can see why this would be the case, since the racing sequences themselves are incredibly exhilarating and technically marvelous considering the time in which the film was made. Unfortunately, this nearly three hours long film plays too often in the manner of a soap opera, dealing mainly with the romantic exploits of a group of generally unlikable characters. Throughout much of the picture, I was unsure who exactly I was even supposed to be rooting for or viewing as the main character since the narrative jumps around quite a lot and rarely seems to settle in long enough to provide a satisfying depiction of any individual figure. Ultimately then, Grand Prix is a film of contrasts: one that will undoubtedly captivate the viewer for the half of its running time that chronicles the racing itself but will put him to sleep during the remaining duration that follows off-track activity.

During the biggest Formula One race of the year taking place in Monaco, teammates Pete Aron (played by rather surly James Garner) and Scott Stoddard (a lackadaisical performance from Brian Bedford) are having a fierce battle on-track when a mechanical failure causes Aron’s transmission to seize. Stoddard, with nowhere to go, plows into the rear of Aron’s car and is seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Furious at the mishap which he believes is Aron’s fault, the team owner fires Aron, leading him to seek a racing drive elsewhere. An opportunity arises in the form of an up-and-coming team owned by Japanese businessman Izo Yamura (the great Toshiro Mifune, whose voice is dubbed by the same guy who did the voice of Dr. Hu in King Kong EscapesWTF??!?), and Aron jumps at the chance to get back in a race car. As the rivalry between Stoddard and Aron heats up, one is also brewing at the Ferrari team between veteran French driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (French actor Yves Montand) and his cocky and young Italian teammate Nino Barlini (a lively Antonio Sabato). Meanwhile, soap opera shenanigans taking place off-track pop up when Aron tries to shack up with Stoddard’s flirty, suddenly-estranged wife (played by none other than Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), while Sarti puts the moves on a plucky, older American woman (Eva Marie Saint) doing a story on the racing scene and Barlini charms any female in sight (including French singer/actress Françoise Hardy). As the championship battle comes down to the wire at the season’s final race in Italy, these interpersonal relationships begin to either spiral out of control or get real, and not everyone is going to walk away from this racing season unscathed…

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On the high banks at Monza

As one might expect considering that this is the work of a director coming off a number of tightly-constructed thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, Grand Prix is a technical marvel even if it in ways comes across as a bit of a mess. On one hand, the film definitely does a fine job of capturing the glitz and glamor of Formula One racing and the high society folks that inevitably are drawn to the sport. The picture also is phenomenal from a cinematic standpoint, with split-screen work and rapid-fire editing (designed by legendary graphic artist Saul Bass) that does a remarkable job of relating the tense atmosphere surrounding the races themselves. This film was photographed in 70mm and it shows, playing as a sort of test run at the types of techniques that would be used in the landmark music/concert film Woodstock. The editing and split-screen work flawlessly convey the idea of concurrent events taking place and give the viewer a seemingly authentic portrait of a “live” event as it happens. Additionally, Grand Prix boasts amazingly colorful photography by Lionel Lindon which not only captures breathtaking international locations, but also makes it seem like a viewer is right in the driver’s seat much of the time. I can easily see how this film influenced television coverage of auto racing since it includes aerial shots taken from helicopter which provides a “bigger picture” view of what’s happening in the race as well as in-car views that show how intense the competition is on the ground. Obviously, this film was made well-before in-car-cameras became widely used, so all this technology had to be developed exclusively for this film. The results of all this work are stunning to look at.

Problems begin to creep into the picture anytime cars aren’t barreling around on various racing circuits though: the script by Robert Alan Aurthur gets increasingly lame and tiresome as it goes along. Any sort of relationship issue one can imagine might turn up in the film, actually does – I was waiting for one of the women to declare that she’s pregnant at any moment. It’s rather disheartening that Aurthur appears to use various cliché story devices simply to elicit a gut response in a viewer rather than develop anything any aspect of these characters, and the barrage of sappy story material left me more nauseated by than legitimately concerned about them. I also thought the ending of the film was downright ineffective: I can understand that the film didn’t want to end on an entirely sour note in its depiction of Formula One, but the cop-out final scene with Garner walking the grid at Monza lessened the impact of the hard-hitting moment that featured at the climax of the picture. Given that one of the minor themes of the film deals with the racing audience’s need for accidents, blood, and potentially death, it’s strange that Frankenheimer and Aurthur didn’t go for the jugular here when they very easily could have. The conclusion of the film, in my mind then, simply drops the ball.

in car camera
Early in-car camera…yikes!

As much as I could say that the acting performances in this film are par for the course in a film of this nature from this time period, I also could point out that the actors don’t entirely impress. Generally, it seems as though most of the attention here is on Yves Montand as the honorable, veteran French competitor who’s beginning to see that his days racing are numbered. Considering that the Montand story comes across as schmaltzy despite the actor turning in arguably the best performance in the picture, it seems a ridiculous notion to focus a large amount screentime on an even less interesting storyline involving James Garner and his relationship with the wife of his main rival. It’s also pretty astonishing that a universally appealing and likable actor as Garner comes across like a prick in the film: I just couldn’t in any way shape or form like this guy no matter how much charm Garner as an actor has. To be frank, Jessica Walter seems like a total bimbo as she flip-flops from one guy to another while “living it up” in the racing scene, and Eva Marie Saint simply gets too hysterical down the stretch after doing a nice job in her early scenes. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the hilariously awful scene in which Sabato and Hardy engage in a war of words late in the going – listening to these two attempt the English language will just make your jaw hit the floor.

F1
Formula 1 Racing in the 1960s was DANGEROUS!

While the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, it should go without saying that Grand Prix would be an absolute must for fans of Formula racing since it shows the cars, tracks, and drivers that actually were competing in the sport in the mid 1960s. Being a fan of F-1 since I was a lad, the history on display was amazing to see, and it was also fascinating to me that this film seemed to capture the exact moment when the “old time” racing drivers were starting to find themselves challenged by “hotshot” younger talent – a situation that is even more prevalent today. I also loved how the climactic race took place (and was filmed) at the classic combined Monza circuit replete with high-speed, high-banked turns – this made the whole finale all the more exciting for me. Finally, it was pretty remarkable to see how much safety regulations have changed since the mid 1960s. I was shocked to see these cars speeding around the (full and lengthy) Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium considering that this course uses public roads, runs within feet of actual residences, and has no guardrails of any sort over much of its length. Though the film doesn’t shy away from depicting how dangerous the sport is/was, it may actually downplay the outright brutality of Formula One racing in this era: in the era from 1966-1975, fourteen drivers – including Jochen Rindt, Jo Schlesser, Jo Siffert, and Lorenzo Bandini who all appeared in the film – lost their lives due to injuries sustained in crashes.

Despite its (many) shortcomings, it’s safe to say that Grand Prix is decidedly more interesting to watch than big-budget, star-studded melodramatic trash of the Airport variety – as much as I did get frustrated with all of Grand Prix’s stale off-track debacles, it never reaches the ultra-cheesy lows of a piece like the aforementioned 1970 disaster opus. A viewer can endlessly wish Frankenheimer’s amazingly ambitious film would have been more consistent, had better story material, and gotten better mileage out of a talented ensemble cast, but I’d have no problem saying that the images and sound alone make it worth watching. The roar of automobile engines have rarely been captured this well (the film won well-deserved Oscars for Best Sound, Sound Effects, and Editing), and Maurice Jarre’s music perfectly captures the ups and downs of competitive racing, with the opening overture in particular superbly mimicking the sound of race cars whizzing by. This film seems to be exactly what modern television producers are trying to achieve in their coverage of racing events, and imperfect though it is, Grand Prix is, quite simply, spectacular viewing.


A nice home video package – a gorgeous widescreen print of the film is supplemented with a half-hour “making-of,” a featurette about Saul Bass’s editing schemes and the sound design, a short tour of the famous Brands Hatch raceway, and a vintage behind-the-scenes program. Most interesting (to me anyway) was a short featurette dealing with F-1 racing in the 1960s that included interviews with various drivers and some cool archival footage.


3/10 : A few gnarly racing accidents showing the expected blood and carnage. If anything though, this film actually tones down the brutality of classic Formula One racing.


2/10 : Some adult-oriented discussions, a few uses of the word “damn;” pretty sanitary overall.


3/10 : These drivers get lucky on and off the track, though this film is mostly all saucy talk.


4/10 : Race fans will dig the hell out of the action sequences – and be bored beyond belief in between them


“I used to think nothing could be better than motorbike racing. Three times I am a World Champion on my motorbike. I am happy. Then I go into one of these, these cars: you sit in a box, a coffin, gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb! Crazy, but of course the cars are faster, and that is the most important thing. ”

“Car 54″ is my Insomnia Enabler

Car 54, Where Are You?

Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon in front of Car 54Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as Gunther Toody and Francis Muldoon

Buy Season 1 ($24.61) and Season 2 ($23.38) at Amazon

[Rating: 5/5]

Pros: You can let your kids watch Car 54! There isn’t any adult language or violence. Sexual situations, if any, are hinted at. You can all laugh together!

Cons: I can’t find any at all.

Some people will rarely admit to watching some silly things on TV when sleep escapes them. I am not one of those people. I’m proud that I discovered my old, silly favorite, Car 54, Where Are You?, nestled between The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show (originally aired under the title You’ll Never Get Rich).

Most people who watch these old shows (like my brother) on YouTube brag that they can watch snippets of them whenever they want on their computers or tablets. I don’t understand chasing down 10 and 15-minute segments of shows online when you can watch the entire show on a large screen, and not lose continuity. Watching on a full-size TV screen also makes it easier to see facial expressions. You can always use your computer, tablet, or smart phone to get guest stars’ names if the credits go by too fast for you.

Loveable Characters
One of the reasons I love Car 54 is the way the characters are written. They’re allowed to be ethnic without exaggeration. The main characters are Officers Francis Muldoon (Fred Gwynne, who later became famous as Herman Munster) and Gunther Toody (Joe E. Ross, who was also featured on You’ll Never Get Rich/Phil Silvers Show). Muldoon is smarter and better educated than Toody, but he doesn’t treat his partner like a putz. The two are squad car partners and friends. Toody is married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons), who often invites bachelor Muldoon to a home-cooked meal. Other officers at the 35rd Precinct in the Bronx include Officer Leo Schnauser (Al Lewis, who later became Grandpa Munster and even ran as a Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 1998) and his partner, Officer Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett), and Captain Paul Block (Paul Reed) were in the majority of episodes. Charlotte Rae, who my now-adult kids know as Mrs. Garrett on Facts of Life, played Sylvia Schnauser – wife of Leo Schnauser and nosy confidante to Lucille Toody.

Favorite Episodes
An episode that centered on the cops’ home life was one of my favorites! Titled One Sleepy People, the episode opens with Francis spending the night with the Gunther and Lucille. After dinner, Francis and Lucille watch a spicy TV show while Gunther snores in his favorite chair. The show they watch is about a man who has an affair with his best friend’s wife as the unwitting husband dozes in his favorite chair. Lucille and Francis suddenly believe that each has eyes for the other. Every innocent moment becomes a torrid advance, as Lucille clutches at her faded house dress’ snap closures. If Lucille wore a negligee or low-cut dress, it wouldn’t be as funny. Francis is equally hounded, colliding with Lucille in the kitchen where they both went to escape each other’s “advances.” Lucille runs to Sylvia for advice, but Sylvia is mostly interested in details. The scenes between Lucille and Sylvia are pee-fully funny!

There are three episodes starring Molly Picon, the Helen Hayes of Yiddish Theater. For those who are too young to have seen her in anything but Fiddler on the Roof, Picon was an actor/comedian/singer who was popular in Yiddish Theater and movies for many years prior to a second career as a character actor in English-language productions.

In all three episodes, Picon played Mrs. Bronson, a clever and resourceful Yiddishe Momma. We first meet her in a condemned tenement, where every legal agency in New York has unsuccessfully attempted to serve eviction notices. The demolition crew waits, and construction of a new entrance to the George Washington Bridge is suspended while Toody and Muldoon attempt to reason with Mrs. Bronson. She serves her adversaries tea and cake as she files each notice in the proper location – with all the other notices she ignores.

Mrs. Bronson’s next visit from Toody and Muldoon is at her new home, a hi-rise airy apartment. She brags that she actually slept with a blanket even though it’s August. Of course it’s airy. The building isn’t finished yet! Mrs. Bronson is happily living among the I-Beams and girders that form the skeleton of her abode. When the officers try to convince her that she can’t live there, she responds that her move-in date is August 1 and she has every right to move in.

In her third encounter with law enforcement, Mrs. Bronson takes up professional matchmaking. There isn’t any law against it, but the trouble is that she is matching the bottom-of-the-barrel Bronx singles with the likes of Joan Crawford and Tuesday Weld. Toody and Muldoon visit Mrs. Bronson to explain that she can’t give people false hope. She pulls out a folder filled with cease and desist letters from Joan Crawford’s attorneys as proof of a match in progress. Muldoon points out that all the letters are threats of litigation. Mrs. Bronson isn’t impressed: “You see, Francis, she’s just playing hard to get.”

I can cite so many more episodes that have me go from laughter to tears within a half hour:

  • There’s the hated landlord’s son who needs a minyan (a quorum of ten Jews – at those days, men only) for his Bar Mitzvah, but no one will attend the service because his father is the landlord.
  • Another great episode involves President Kennedy’s motorcade. News footage of a Kennedy motorcade from LaGuardia Airport to the UN Building was inserted for realism. Because of his assassination, the episode only aired once with Kennedy’s image. In reruns, similar footage with President Johnson was substituted.
  • Toody miraculously knows details of crimes scenes, which lands him on the promotion list for detective. However, he’s actually remembering the true crime TV episode he watched the night before. Coincidentally, the thieves based their heists on the same TV show.

Watch, laugh, and make sure you can get to the bathroom on time in case your bladder is like mine.

Joe Meek’s Influential Early Space Opera: I HEAR A NEW WORLD

I HEAR A NEW WORLD by Joe Meek

$15.26 at Amazon  

(4/5)

Pros: Nifty experimental techniques; relaxed surf/island music vibes; great melodies; great CD package

Cons: Hasn’t aged all that well in the 50 years since it was made

 

The saga of British-born record producer and songwriter Joe Meek is a pretty strange, ultimately sad one. Regarded in some circles as a sort of “poor man’s Phil Spector” due to his ability to utilize music production techniques that, in the early 1960s, were trend-setting (and the opposite of Spector’s expansive “wall of sound” technique), Meek scored a couple of hits as a songwriter – including the first British song to hit number 1 in America when The Tornados’s “Telstar” topped the charts – despite the fact that he wasn’t a trained musician. After that early triumph, Meek set up his own recording studio in a loft in North London, crafting hits for the likes of John Leyton and The Honeycombs. This success had a downside for Meek (a well-known homosexual who grew increasingly paranoid, especially since homosexuality was illegal at the time in the UK) however, and in 1967, a broke and destitute Meek borrowed a shotgun from a friend, and killed his landlady and later himself. Through the years, his contributions to the process of music production have been recognized and lauded, so much so that the Music Producers Guild created an award for “Innovation” in his honor in 2009 (first recipient – appropriately enough – Brian Eno).

Perhaps one of Meek’s most interesting contributions to the world of music was the 1960 album I Hear a New World, a sort of space opera concept album, written by Meek and performed by Rod Freeman & the Blue Men. Using all sorts of experimental techniques, this disc attempted to, in the words of Meek, “create a picture in music of what could be in outer space,” and I think to a large degree, it accomplishes the goal of sounding quite different from much of anything else being produced at the time. One can almost see how various “out there” albums of the late ‘60s drew from the types of sound that Meek imagined for this project, yet there’s a playfulness and warmness to the whole thing that was often missing from subsequently-produced experimental music. I Hear a New World at times sounds like a recording of an interstellar luau, with surf-guitar melodies and a tropical vibe established through use of Latin percussion. At others, the disc incorporates homemade sound effects to create images of alien landscapes and armies on the march. It surely is an interesting album to listen to and definitely fits the generally relaxed vibe of early ‘60s surf rock, though I’m not sure that I’d call it an honest-to-goodness classic.

The album’s title track (the only one with traditional vocals and lyrics) begins with growling low tones and what seems like the sounds of winds blowing across distant planets, before a laid back samba bass line kicks up. Several layers of vocals are heard, the most prominent one being a main melody, with accompanying harmonies and in the distance of the mix, high-pitched and sped-up vocal takes that are nearly identical to the sound of novelty group David Seville and the Chipmunks. This track fades out with bubbling sound effects that lead into the second track “Orbit Around the Moon,” which eventually works itself into a percussive frenzy of hypnotic, calliope-like organ and heavy, surf guitar strumming. I love the warbling, nearly out-of-tune guitar featured as a harmony element, providing a wacky base for a chorus of wordless vocal parts. “Entry of the Globbots” includes more gurgling atmospheric sounds and thundering crescendos of low tones before a military march section bounces along to a rhythm of loud snare drum and a sinister, menacing underlying bass progression. Above all of this, we get more delirious, Chipmunk-like vocals, laughing and blurting out the melody.

“The Bublight” plays to me like an early run at making an instrumental like the later hit “Telstar;” built off a manic, scratchy rhythm of shakers and guiro, a warbly guitar line surges over another bouncy and energetic bassline. Follow-up track “March of the Dribcots” sounds as if it were performed by a marching band who had ingested too much scotch. The manipulated “dooby-dooby” vocals only seal the deal as this being one of the more demented (but positively fun) tracks on the album. “Love Dance of the Saroos” sounds more like surf or “island music,” with a bellowing accordion-like harmony over a crisp, plucked guitar line and stand-up bass. Eventually, a somewhat screechy main melody joins the fray, but though there’s a lot going on, the production remains clean and the overall sound very relaxed. Following this track, I Hear a New World heads into its most blatantly experimental section for “Glob Waterfall” and the beginning section of “Magnetic Field.” Lots of unconventional sound here, as Meek, probably literally inventing the sounds as he went along, gets a chance to show off his ability to create space in a recording.

The second half of “Magnetic Field” again lets loose with a bleepy guitar-driven instrumental that sounds quite similar to “Telstar,” and the round-like song works through several variations of the main theme. “Valley of the Saroos” sounds like a cracked-up slow-dancing song, with most of the instruments played just slightly off-pitch. The main, plunky guitar sounds particularly strange, seeming to imagine a world that’s off-kilter or tilted ever so slightly, thus making it seem downright bizarre to an Earthling. “Dribcots Space Boat” injects instant energy into the proceedings, pushed along by a nearly-distorted electric organ and throbbing two-note bass line. “Disc Dance of the Globbots” has a rockabilly feel to it, with a back-country banjo melody and resonant player piano harmony. I could almost see this track playing at a hoe-down, and it gradually picks up pace until it’s really moving by the end. The album concludes with “Valley of No Return,” a slowed-down number which incorporates some of the melodic themes from earlier tracks and precisely expresses a reluctant departure – there’s a slight somberness to the piece, making it work ever so well as a coda to this enchanting little album.

Sadly, I Hear a New World was never released during the lifespan of the visionary producer and songwriter who envisioned it, and for the longest time, this album sat unreleased in its completed form. Finally, in 1991, Meek’s pet project saw the light of day in the context it was intended to be heard, released on CD by RPM Records. 2001 saw the album re-issued on that label, this time with a full thirty-minute interview with Meek (“A Day in the Life”) tacked onto the end of the 30-minute album. In this interview (recorded in 1962), Meek matter-of-factly discusses his early history, work in the British recording industry, and production techniques. I daresay that not everyone will be interested in this archival material, but the interview certainly does provide a fascinating, first-hand account of the early days of music production as well as material for those interested in audio production or engineering to think about. I should also point out that the liner notes for the album explain the ongoing “story” Meek was trying to tell with this recording, thus making sense of the outlandish song titles.

Having been listening in recent months to a large variety of early rock and roll, surf music, and experimental albums of yesteryear, I’d say that I Hear a New World definitely is of interest to those who appreciate any or all of those things. This undeniably fun, atmospheric album is all about creating a listening experience all its own, and it demonstrates the types of material that can be produced with a little ingenuity and creativity since at the time it was made, technology (especially in the world of experimental and electronically-based music) was in its infancy. Though there are some upbeat, more highly-structured songs to be found here, I’d say the general mood of this album is slightly lazy and carefree, with glowing melodies that are frankly astounding considering that Meek wasn’t the least bit musically inclined by conventional standards. This sonic journey probably wouldn’t impress listeners used to modern production and musical techniques (it’s very simplistic when compared to contemporary recordings and hasn’t aged all that well), but I think it’d be worthwhile for those with an appreciation of older music of the early 1960s.