Sunday, June 28, 2015

Confessions of a Record Fiend, Pt. 2

A few days after my last record binge, I was hanging out with a friend and watching a movie. I wasn't planning on going record shopping at all. But one thing lead to another, and there was a record he realized he forgot to buy and, well, I gave him my sympathy and support and suggested we run back to the store before it closed. What are friends for, if not record shopping? Naturally, I dove into the bargain bins and found some great stuff.

The biggest score, of course, was Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. The first B-52's album was also a great find. Also picked up Bernard Herrmann Conducts Great British Film Scores and Jimmy Smith Swings Along With Stranger in Paradise. I got to see Jimmy Smith play live once, at The Iridium here in NYC, an amazing performance. He's one of my favorites, so anytime I see his stuff I grab it.

A compilation of early Willie Nelson tracks called Columbus Stockade Blues, Jim Croce's You Don't Mess Around With Jim, The Jam's The Gift, and Tom T. Hall's Country Is.

James P. Johnson and The Carter Family collections, as well as two Bob Dylan albums, Planet Waves and Greatest Hits Vol. 1.

Was surprised to find these jazz records for so cheap. Hubert Laws' CTI recording of The Rite of Spring, Mahavishnu Orchestra's Innerworlds, and a live Mingus recording called Jazz Experiment, recorded in New York, December 1954.

The next day was a 25-cent sidewalk record sale. That might take two or three posts to explore. And I was back at Academy on Friday, so there will be many more confessions to come. And I might hit up Permanent Records this afternoon.

To be continued ...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Great Place to Die: Sam Peckinpah's "The Killer Elite" (1975)

It was a killer decade for Sam Peckinpah. After cutting his teeth on television westerns like The Rifleman, his first feature film was 1961's The Deadly Companions (written by paperback writer extraordinaire A.S. Fleischman), an underrated movie whose anti-heroic narrative and elegiac mood shows the roots of Peckinpah's hallmark style. By the time he made his next feature, Ride the High Country, the following year, Peckinpah was already fully mature as an artist. Peckinpah continued with an extraordinary string of movies, each one masterful in their own way: Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch (1969), The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), Straw Dogs (1971), Junior Bonner (1972), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973), Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Peckinpah's films are an uncanny alchemy of savagery, violence, and philosophy. He's capable of extremely brutality, and yet there are frequently moments of strange serenity in his films. He finds grace in the most unexpected of moments, whether in the rodeo ring, during a gunfight, or an unexpected moment of calm. 

And then came The Killer Elite (1975). Maybe it was the hype of his earlier work that distracted the critics, or maybe they were just too dense to get it, but they hated it. Variety called it "an okay Sam Peckinpah actioner" and "boringly complex."  The New York Times said, "Sam Peckinpah knows how to make movies but perhaps he has forgotten why. At least that is the feeling given by this bag of mixed, often damp fireworks." And Roger Ebert wrote, "directed and acted with a certain nice style, but it puts us through so many convolutions of the plot that finally we just don't care."

Since I wasn't around at the time, I can't say what it was like to see it back in 1975. But seeing it now, it's pure Peckinpah. The style, the story, the cynicism, it all fits in perfectly within Peckinpah's body of work. The story is a twist on the Robert Ryan-William Holden betrayal in The Wild Bunch, in which former partners find themselves on opposite sides of the law. In The Killer Elite, secret agent James Caan is double-crossed by partner Robert Duvall, who kills the target they are supposed to protect, and shoots Caan in the elbow and kneecap. After a long recovery, Caan is back on the job with two new partners, Bo Hopkins (lead greaser from American Graffiti) and Burt Young (Paulie from the Rocky movies), and they must protect another target from not only Duvall, but a team of ninja assassins.

The plot is a strange mixture of 70's cinematic trends (political paranoia, martial arts action, and urban thriller) with Peckinpah's characteristic concerns about the culture of violence, the bonds of masculine friendships,  and anachronistic characters who have outlived their time. Caan and his crew, like The Wild Bunch, never have a chance of winning. Even if they succeed in their mission, they can never succeed against the larger forces. It is a new era, governments and corporations are pulling the strings, and the old generation is being phased out (or killed off) one by one. Time is not on their side.

Like the children toying with the scorpion as it is devoured by ants during the opening of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah presents a social order in the throws of chaos. Off-balance with a perverse sense of justice, it isn't clear who the hero or villain is, what is right or wrong, where one should go or if one should stay put. In The Killer Elite, snipers could be on any roof, ninjas around any corner, bombs under any car. Your partner could be your enemy, your boss your enemy's boss. And your mission, your purpose for living, might not mean a damn thing.

The film also offers something different from Peckinpah's earlier films: whereas the previous decade was almost exclusively Western settings (except for the English countryside in Straw Dogs)The Killer Elite exchanges the desert for the big city. Peckinpah's first urban film, it was shot on-location in San Francisco. Throughout the movie you can see his distinctive fragmentary cutting and slow-motion editing.

Great directors can use landscapes to different effects. John Ford's express a sense of majesty, a natural order that is bigger than people. Whether in the city or in the country, Anthony Mann's shots are ominous and forbidding: there's always something dark hidden in the shadows, just as there is something dark hidden within his characters' souls. To me, Peckinpah's landscapes often express ambivalence. Every desert, every mountain, every street, and every building is a theater of war. From Chinatown to the piers, the streets to a ship's deck, The Killer Elite moves all over San Francisco, up and down its hills, and along the Embarcadero Freeway. Every place is a battlefield. And yet, his characters are drawn to these places. There's no place else for them to call home (not that they would want to go home, if there was one), for it is through the journey of violence that his characters are able to define themselves. Mayhem is the only meaning their lives have.  

For Peckinpah's characters, the world might not be a great place to live, but at least it's a great place to die.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

"The Changeling" (1980), or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Big, Old, Scary House

Big old houses scare the crap out of me. Not dudes with chainsaws, machetes, axes, knives, or striped sweaters. Slashers, shockers, goblins, ghouls--I love 'em all, but they rarely scare me.

But a big old house?

Absolutely terrifying.

So, a couple of nights ago, alone in my apartment, I decided to put on The Changeling (1980), which had been recommended to me by a few different people. I knew it had George C. Scott, and that was about it.

No one told me about the house.

Of course, I was freaked the hell out. I even texted a friend during the movie. They reminded me that the 3-story house I grew up in Maine was a "Changeling" house. Not the most comforting words. Oh, well.

Despite my discomfort, I thought it was a great movie. Scott plays a composer whose wife and child were run over. Bereft, he relocates from New York City to Seattle and takes up residence in a huge house all by himself. Soon, he starts hearing noises. A strange banging the same time every morning. And then he uncovers a boarded up doorway in a closet behind some shelves. And then a spiritualist comes over, and Scott discovers there's more than a mortgage hanging over this property.

Much of the movie's effectiveness comes from its reliance on atmosphere. Not special effects, eerie music, or volume "jumps" that switch from soft to loud in a heartbeat. Instead, the camera sits in anxious isolation with George C. Scott as he endures the strangeness that he can feel but not see. The script features minimal dialog, and it is a very visually-driven film. But even with little dialog, Scott gives a magnificent performance, relying on his expressive facial features to communicate so much of his character.

The scenes that affected me the most were the ones that were the most mundane. Sitting in bed, hearing weird sounds in the house, wondering what the hell was causing them; exploring attics and basements; or finding inexplicable deviations in the architecture (such as when Scott discovers a hidden doorway behind some shelves). With an over-active imagination such as mine, the horrific possibilities hidden in each room seem endless. Thankfully, I now live in a studio, but even that is a bit too big for comfort, sometimes.

So, why did I sit through to the end of The Changeling? Well, I like horror movies, but most of all I like movies with a strong sense of atmosphere, one with patient camerawork slowly builds anticipation in the audience, a director that earns chills instead of opting for cheap effects, a cast of characters who carry conviction and emotional weight, and a story that is not just believable but that I want to believe in. The Changeling was all of these things.

I'll be watching this one again.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Happy Wicked, Wicked Birthday to Errol Flynn

Today is Errol Flynn's birthday. Born June 20, 1909 and died October 14, 1959. In his brief fifty years, he managed to live one hell of a "wicked, wicked" life. His autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, is more fiction than fact, but it's a lot of fun to read, and the title perfectly captures his roguish, dangerous charm. His devil-may-care lifestyle and heavy drinking, however, hurt not only his career, but wrecked his personal life and contributed to his early death.

Most famous for playing the title role in the 1938 Technicolor film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, it's impossible not to think of him with a feather cap on his head and a sword in his hand. The consummate swashbuckling, romantic leading man, Flynn gave a number of great performances in his career.

In celebration of Errol Flynn's birthday, here are my five favorite non-Robin Hood roles:

Northern Pursuit (1943)
Directed by Flynn's close friend and frequent collaborator, Raoul Walsh, here Flynn plays a Mountie who is fighting Nazis in the snowy Canadian wilderness. Suspected of being a double agent, Flynn is discharged from duty. When Nazis hear of this, they hire him as a guide through the mountains. Thinking this is a perfect way to infiltrate the enemy, Flynn takes the job but soon finds that sabotage isn't as easy as it seems. It's great to see Flynn in a contemporary role, a nice change of pace from his typical historical characters.

Objective, Burma (1945)
Flynn plays a captain on a mission to destroy a Japanese radar facility in the Burmese jungle. Getting in is one thing, but getting out poses a bigger challenge when Japanese troops interrupt their extraction. Stuck behind enemy lines, Flynn must lead his troops out of the country on foot. Not your typical gung-ho WWII propaganda, it's a bleak and desperate survival story, soberingly and strikingly directed by Raoul Walsh.

Silver River (1948)
In addition to his swashbucklers, Flynn made eight westerns, including Dodge City (1939), Virginia City (1940), Santa Fe Frail (1940), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), San Antonio (1945), Montana (1950), and Rocky Mountain (1950), but my favorite is Silver River (1948). Directed once again by Walsh, Silver River finds Flynn playing a disgraced officer who, after being dishonorably discharged, rebuilds his life as gambler with his sights on a silver empire.

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)
From the beginning of his career, Flynn's name was synonymous with adventure. This film, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, is from the last few years of his career. An overlooked gem, it shows that Flynn never lost his daredevil charm or intrepid spirit. Set during the Jacobite revolt in Scotland during the 18th century, Flynn finds himself on the wrong side of King George II. Believing his brother has betrayed him, Flynn becomes a pirate and sets out for revenge.

Too Much, Too Soon (1958)
In 1942, Raoul Walsh played a prank on Flynn. Their mutual friend, drinking buddy, and Hollywood colleague, John Barrymore, had passed away. If the story is to be believed--and I sure as hell hope it is--Walsh "borrowed" Barrymore's corpse and positioned it in a chair in Flynn's living room with a drink in its hand. After the night of heavy drinking and mourning was over, Flynn walked into his home and guess who was paying him a friendly visit from beyond the grave? Well, some say the story isn't true, but even if it isn't, it is an amusing, if macabre, scene to imagine.

The sad aftermath of that story is that it wasn't too long before Flynn himself began his own Barrymore-decline due to his excessive drinking. Even more ironic, Flynn played Barrymore in this father-daughter biopic, Too Much, Too Soon. It's a devastating performance, all the more so because of the real-life overlap with Flynn, himself. One year later, he was dead.

Confessions of a Record Fiend: Part 1 of an on-going series

Recently, I decided to go back into the world of vinyl. At the end of May I bought a record player as a reward for finishing a writing project, and have been enjoying record hunting throughout New York City. I try to limit myself mainly to the cheapo bins, and so far I've had some incredible scores. My latest one was last week.

I couldn't believe my luck, as I found two of my dream LPs, both in great shape: Judy Garland's Alone and Robert Mitchum's Calypso Is Like So.

I was also psyched to find 12 Northern Cheyenne Songs, Blossom Dearie's Once Upon a Summertime, Charlie Rich's Boss Man, and Beach Boys' Concert.

I could still hold a few more records in my arms, so I added Waylon Jennings' Don't Think Twice It's Alright (his earliest recordings) and Ol' Waylon, Porter Wagoner's Soul of a Convict and Other Great Prison Songs, Booker T. and the MG's The Booker T. Set, and Roy Buchanan's That's What I'm Here For.

Today's plan? Clean 'em up and start listening to them!

There's a 25 cent record sale tomorrow, as long as it doesn't rain. Hoping for another great vinyl score adventure there.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Happy Birthday, Richard Boone: "I Bury The Living" (1958)

Today is the birthday of Richard Boone (June 18, 1917 - January 10,1981), who has become one of my favorite actors. More often than not, he was the name beneath the title, a supporting player to someone with more star power. No matter how big or small the role, however, Boone definitely made an impact. A tremendous actor who was always convincing in his roles, he had a physical presence, cool intensity, and calm yet stern voice that was unmistakable. He was perfectly at home in westerns, which gave him a stage to show off his ruggedness and quick-witted intelligence.

He appeared alongside Randolph Scott in Ten Wanted Men and The Tall T, with John Wayne in The Alamo, Big Jake, and The Shootist, as well as in Hombre, Man Without a Star, The Raid, Rio Conchos, Madron, God's Gun, and many other movies. Among his most prominent roles was as the star of the television series Have Gun - Will Travel, where he played the lead role of Paladin, the man-in-black bounty hunter who was equal parts gentleman, scholar, and 100% badass.

It was a great surprise to go through a cheapo DVD horror compilation a few days ago to discover a movie called I Bury the Living form 1958 that starred Richard Boone. I had never heard of it before and was unaware I even owned it, but I was excited to see that he had the lead role.

Boone plays the newly-elected director of a cemetery who makes a startling discovery. The graveyard map in his office has the power to kill. By accidentally changing the pin from white to black, Boone unwittingly sends several of his clients to an early grave. After experimenting with several other pins, Boone is convinced that he is cursed, and he begins his downward spiral into depression and madness.

The movie is certainly a low-budget production, runs only 76 minutes and is confined mainly to one interior set, but I love and admire B movies precisely for their economy and inventiveness. And while the concept may be on the hokey side, it is Boone's rock solid demeanor and strong acting abilities that elevate the movie and save it. He's great, and imbues the character with conviction and emotion. His breakdown, in particular, is a remarkable performance. The last twenty minutes of the whole movie, in fact, are terrific, with some wonderfully surreal visual effects.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A lunatic western: Mario Bava's "Roy Colt and Winchester Jack"

Italian director Mario Bava is best known for his horror films, such as the lushly gothic Black Sunday, the triptych Black Sabbath, the high-fashion murders of Blood and Black Lace, and the proto-slasher Bay of Blood. But Bava was more than just horror, he also did the Hitchcockian thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, the brutal kidnapping-gone-wrong thriller Rabid Dogs, and several sword-and-sandal movies. He also directed three westerns: Gunman Called Nebraska (aka Ringo From Nebraska, an uncredited co-directing credit), The Road to Fort Alamo, and Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970).

At first glance, this doesn't look like your average Bava movie--none of the rich, shadowy atmosphere of his black-and-white pictures, and none of the macabre elements of his other horror pictures--but it still exhibits the director's marvelous eye for color, his quirky and offbeat camera direction, and innovative approach to genre. Not your typical Leone- or Corbucci-inspired spaghetti western, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is high-pulp mayhem of the finest order.

Former partners-in-crime, pen pals Roy Colt and Winchester Jack write each other (despite Jack's illiteracy) about their respective hardships. Going straight ain't easy for Roy, and crime hasn't been paying off for Jack. All of that changes when Jack comes into possession of a treasure map and heads off for gold. Recently appointed sheriff, Roy takes off after Jack--but is he going to capture his old friend, join up with him, or double-cross him and take the gold for himself? Traveling with Roy is a preacher with a sadistic mean streak and a greedy heart, and alongside Jack is Manila, a Native American con artist/prostitute with capitalistic drive and a phallic wooden abacus for keeping track of how much money she is owed for her sexual favors.

With its buoyant camera movement, dazzling colors, brothel hijinks, brutal desert massacres with excessive body counts, and epileptic death twitches, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is what you might call a lunatic western. It is perverse, violent, and cartoonish, yet it is not a farce because it isn't making fun of the genre. Instead, it takes the hallmarks of the western and puts a psychotic, dirty-minded spin on them.

Brett Halsey plays Roy Colt, Charles Southwood plays Winchester Jack, Marilu Tolo plays Manila, and Teodoro Corra plays the preacher.