The End (1978)

Star Burt Reynolds has directed five theatrical films, this one was his second.  The concept is an interesting twist on the whole “death with Dignity” movement, and in light of the laws passed in several states in the last few years, it might be seen as politically incorrect. Reynolds  is Sonny Lawson, a slightly crooked real estate broker who discovers that he has a terminal blood disease and will be dead within six months. After hearing from his doctor, a rather grim prognosis of the process of the disease, he decides he is going to kill himself.  Oh yeah, the film is a comedy by the way.

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The story is very episodic, with Sonny running through a series of interactions with his girlfriend, ex-wife, best friend, parents and most significantly his daughter. Each brief sequence gives Burt a chance to toss off some slightly offhand jokes about dying. The only two people he tells the truth to at first are his girlfriend, played by his real girlfriend at the time Sally Fields, and his lawyer “best friend” , comedian and actor David Steinberg.  Neither of those encounters goes the way he would want them to, and the awkward sex scene with Field, which is intended to be awkward, is an example of the stretch for jokes that the film makes.

There are an abundance of well known actors who show up for their one scene and then are out of the picture. Norman Fell is a dry and not very empathetic doctor. Robby Benson plays a new priest who seems to misunderstand how the confessional is supposed to work. Myrna Loy and Pat O’Brien, stars from the classic age of Hollywood are in one scene as Sonny’s slightly detached parents. This film will be a good link for people trying to win a game of six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Joanne Woodward, who was married to Strother’s frequent co-star Paul Newman, is actually in two scenes as the ex-wife without much of a heart. Kristy McNicol plays Sonny’s daughter and she is the most sympathetic character in the film. She and Reynolds interact like real people for most of their scene.

Sonny finally collects enough barbiturates from his parents to make an attempt on his life, but he wakes up not dead in an asylum. The rest of the picture is dominated by a maniacal fellow patient played with gusto by Dom DeLuise. dom and burt

DeLuise is an insane man who murdered his wife and befriends Reynolds in the institution. He attempts to help Sonny out in killing himself, despite all the precautions taken by the director of the asylum [our main interest on this site]. Comedy ensues as the attempts misfire and Sonny begins to wonder if he really should exit early.

Strother in only in two scenes in the film. His screen time might amount to a minute if you generously include him waving his arms in the background of the two sequences. He does get an amusing name in the screenplay, Dr. Waldo Kling, director of the institution that Sonny has been committed to. His first scene is a “walk and talk” in the hallway of the hospital as he assures Sonny’s ex- wife and his lawyer that the institution is safe and that there is no way Sonny can injure himself. 20170530_125659

As is often the case, Strother is playing an ineffectual bureaucrat , offering promises beyond his ability to meet, as it is soon discovered. There are a series of silly attempts by DeLuise to off Burt, they usually end up with DeLuise’s character being maimed in some way.

Sonny decides impulsively to escape from the asylum. He grabs a contractors gardening truck and drives it recklessly though the grounds of the institution. This is the second brief Strother scene. He is describing the asylum to a younger couple who are seeking a place for their elderly father. The old man is in a wheelchair and Reynolds barreling down the path towards the group, forces them to leap out of the way, in some cases off a bridge into a small stream.

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That is the sum total of Strother Martin’s contribution to this off beat dark comedy.

The overall film does feel like a series of scenes that are stuck together because that is really all it is. The concept and the actors are what sell the humor in the film. In one of the best scenes in the film, the great Carl Reiner plays a psychologist who tries to convince Sonny to join a therapy group at the asylum. The doctor notes that he too is under a terminal diagnosis, but like Sonny, he looks good and seems to be thriving at the moment.

I can say I saw this film when it came out and I was entertained by it. There are a lot of laughs but it sometimes feels like an extended sketch. It is not an essential Strother Martin film, but it did come near the end of his career and it showcases how quickly he can convey the stereotypical officious authority figure. This came out the same year as “Up in Smoke”, another film that he drops into for a very brief few minutes.

Harper

Strothers Back
Strother Martin’s Back.

There is a bad joke here, but that’s just the way I roll sometimes. This project focuses on the work of Strother Martin, but sometimes his part in the film is a little flimsy so we may need to enhance the material a bit.  Harper is another Paul Newman vehicle, it was made right before “Cool Hand Luke” and it was the first of six collaborations with actor  Newman.

The film is a detective story from a Ross Macdonald novel. The film was written by the great William Goldman, and it tells a convoluted story of the kidnapping of a wealthy but somewhat crazy businessman. Newman is Lew Harper, (a change from the novel’s surname Archer), an L.A. private eye, hired by the man’s wife to find him. At first we don’t even know why he has gone missing. The film’s title sequence tells us all about the character of Harper. He is living in his office, and not living particularly well. He is sleeping on a fold out couch and the alarm goes off but he takes his sweet time to do anything about it. Once he gets up, he improvises a filter for the coffee maker, but he has no coffee to make, so he has to dig the grounds from the day before out of the garbage to be able to get his morning cup.

He takes the two hour drive north to “Santa Theresa” , where his appointment with the wife is. We are going to drop several; names in this post so get ready for a lot of character credits. Lauren Bacall is the crippled wife of the missing man. She does not particularly care about him, but she does want to outlive him and know what is going on. Like a lot of movies from the era, this film is all about character and plot often takes a back seat to the people we meet along the way. There is a nosy butler listening at doorways and an officious maid who looks down on Harper as the hired help, not really deserving of guest treatment.

Rich Ralph Sampson, the missing man, not the NBA great, has a personal pilot, an attorney and a daughter that all play suspects or red herrings in the story. The pilot is played by the very handsome Robert Wagner, and for the first half of the movie he seems to become a side kick to Harper, following him from location to location as he tracks down clues and interviews witnesses and suspects. The attorney who hired Harper for the Sampsons is Arthur Hill, a reliable presence in the 60s and 70s, but unfortunately he is frequently cast as the duplicitous type, so his appearance raises red flags everywhere.

Priest to Sun God

Strother is another side character that Harper interviews. “Claude” is a charlatan cult leader to whom the missing man has given a mountain top location for his ministry. As usual, the dialogue he utters is complicated and just slightly odd. It sometimes sounds strange to hear the hillbilly accent accompany the elegant phrases that he so grandiosely delivers. There are three scenes that he appears in, the first and longest is basically a running conversation as they do a walk and talk around the property. The hippy new age trappings mNewman At the Temple of the Cloudsake his mysticism sound even more bizarre. The property is indeed at the top of a mountain and it makes for some spectacular vistas as he and Newman joust in their conversation.

Claude: [as Harper is checking out the “Temple in the Clouds”]” I know you think me a charlatan. I can only say that if you were correct, then death could not claim me too quickly. You obviously have some strong connection with the Sampsons. Don’t deride me to them, I beg you. The gift of this temple was the beginning of my life. I know to you I look ridiculous, but I only want to increase the amount of love in this world. Where is the harm?

Earlier in the story, Harper meets an acquaintance of the missing man, a woman who for a time was a starlet but is now an alcoholic gone to seed. Shelly Winters must have been one of the most self aware actresses of her day. She started her career as another blonde looker but readily took parts that acknowledged her having ballooned up in looks from the early days.

Lew Harper: [asking about Fay Estabrook] She used to be a pretty hot young starlet. What happened to her?

Allan Taggert, Sampson’s Pilot: She got FAT!

She gets called fat at least two more times during the film and she has some unflattering but still realistic eating and passed out scenes where we learn exactly what happened to her.

Robert Webber is her husband, and it turns out he is partners with “Claude” in a side business. While he is a villain in the piece he is not the kidnapper. He does however get to torture heron addict and chanteuse Julie Harris. Strother returns here for a henchman’s comeuppance. Torturing Julie Harris

At one moment he is a grinning sadist but when his boss gets shot and the tables are turned, he silently switches quickly into a comforting bystander, as if he had no part in the horror that was just taking place.

Fast Turn

The weaselly nature of the character was suspected earlier but here it is in plan sight and Newman pistol whips him across the face for it.

janet Leigh and Harold Gould are also in this film. Leigh is Harper’s soon to be ex-wife, her role has absolutely nothing to do with the story but is does give us more character bits for Newman to play. Fellow character actor Gould plays the feckless sheriff that Harper avoids and insults on a regular basis. Roy Jensen, an actor that I recognized immediately from “Chinatown”, is another henchman and he gets a series of politically incorrect taunts about his sexual identity thrown at him by Harper.  Interestingly he plays a character  named Claude in that masterpiece.

No one will assume that this movie is a masterpiece but it is a diverting mystery with an eclectic bunch of characters, including the weird high priest of the Temple of the Sun.

Coastal temple

Cool Hand Luke Entry 1

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Last fall I participated in a podcast where the feature film was “Cool Hand Luke”. A couple of the other guests did not seem to “get” it. They did not see a story arc, the plot doesn’t go anywhere because Paul Newman’s character does not really change and neither do the other prisoners. I wanted to scream at everyone, but since I was a guest and hoped to be invited back, that did not seem like a good idea. Instead, I did my best to try and put the film into context. This film is from the most turbulent decade of the last century. Some of the things that people take for granted these days are a result of changes wrought in the 1960s. The sexual revolution, the women’s movement, anti-war activism, civil rights and a whole host of other movements sprung from the non-conformists of the 60s. Although “Cool Hand Luke” is set in the 1950s, this film’s sensibilities are all about being iconoclastic outsiders.

I meant to save this film for later in the projects development, but an invitation to participate in a blogathon involving prison pictures came up and I could not pass up the chance to talk about this again. Down the road, I may do some deeper posts and we will reflect more on the star of this blog, but for now we are going to stick with the setting of the film. A work camp for prisoners, set in the deep South and set in their ways when it comes to theories of penology. In many ways it is not far removed from other prison based films.

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If you see “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or “The Great Escape”, you will notice that the Japanese and the Germans both employ isolation units in their prisoner of war camps. It’s hard to believe but American prisons up through the 50s employed a hot box closer to the Japanese torture tool than the “Cooler” featured in the European based film. The work crews in the U.S. were only slightly better off than the British soldiers imprisoned in that hell hole in the jungle. The wardens of these facilities are martinets that insist on their policies being followed. While the face of the Southern prison farm in this movie is more avuncular, there are intimidating underlings that clearly would be happy to carry out stronger punishments for transgressions by the inmates.

Into this setting drops Luke Jackson. He is a petty criminal whose offense was to cut the heads off of the local parking meters in the small town that he was drunk in. This is not a case of an innocent man being punished, but rather, a character who just can’t help himself. Doing things the easy way is not in his nature. Especially if someone else is calling the shots. Paul Newman has a sweet smile but is largely indifferent to the people around him. He does not make friends very easily, and even when he does he seems to keep them at a distance. 544_1

The prison setting here is not oppressive, except in the extreme work regimen and rules the inmates have to follow. Some of the guards act a bit paternalistic, and the Captain of the Prison gives pep talks filled with advice, but it’s just not the kind of advice Luke can take. He is an icon of 60s style nonconformity. The phrase that describes “The Man” in this time was “The Establishment”. Luke will do what he can to knock the Establishment back a step or two,.

The one inmate that wants to bond with him at first wants to crush him. The hulking “Dragline”, played by George Kennedy in his Academy Award winning role, is a guy who sees himself as a leader, but recognizes that his influence is limited. While he always remains the top dog in the yard, in truth, Luke is the laissez faire leader. A guy who influences others only through modeling behavior and testing the norms of the system. He would never tell anyone what to do, but others begin to see something in him that is a danger to the structure of the institution, which is why he ultimately needs to be crushed.

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For example, he randomly takes on the challenge of eating fifty eggs, just because someone suggests that it can’t be done. Earlier in the film, he fails in a fight against the bigger and stronger “Dragline”, but still ends up gaining respect from the other prisoners by his indefatigable attitude. If getting his ass handed to him earns admiration, imagine how hyped up everyone will get when he succeeds at this impossible task. It doesn’t violate any rules, there is no direct threat to the camp, but he becomes an inspirational figure to others, who may potentially follow suit in being disruptive parts of the community. An even bigger threat occurs when he escapes from the camp a couple of times. Every minute he is gone becomes a beacon to the others. None of them actually try to emulate him until his final attempt. That’s when he has crossed the line and must be crushed.

The Captain is played by Strother Martin, the main focus of this blog. The part does not have extensive pages of dialogue, but what there is is choice. There are sequences where Martin conveys all we need to know with some pursed lips or a head roll. On the surface he seems mild mannered and even polite. When his authority, and thus the authority of the whole establishment, is challenged, his temper flares. Losing control and striking out is a victory for the malcontent rather than the system. Jay gets to utter the line for which he is justly famous in his moment of defeat. It summarizes the whole plot of the movie.

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Failure to Communicate gif

It will never be enough to inflict punishment, because the two unstoppable forces are not equally matched. That’s the threat that the system sees, and the reason it comes down so hard on Luke. Time in the box, a long sequence of work based torture, and chains on his ankles will not do the job. It is never going to be a happy ending, but it will be a legendary story in the prison.

The film is filled with character actors that populated the film and TV landscape for the following three decades. We will revisit those performers another time and also expand the the performance of Strother Martin. For now however, the prison setting is a metaphor for the oppression of the non-conformists of the era. Naked use of power can be an ugly thing, and the prison setting shows us just how much that is true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sssssss

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As many of you are aware, Strother Martin was my mother’s cousin. He lived with her family for a period of time when he was going to college and they were pretty close. When I was growing up in the 1960’s I remember going to his home with Helen out in Agoura Hills for dinner on several occasions. One time when we were out there we visited a Animal Rescue Ranch, it might be the one Tippi Hedren ran but I’m not sure. I do know that as a kid I didn’t like the baked beans Helen served one night and she told me to skip the next dinner. I was embarrassed because I was rude to my Mom’s family. Helen seemed to forgive me though because later on as an adult, I was always greeted warmly when she came to my parent’s place for dinner after Strother (Jay to all of us) had passed away. I know the date of his death because it was the night before my wedding. My Mom did not tell us, and I was so busy that I did not even realize they had not made it down for the service. I found out reading the paper a couple of days into our honeymoon and immediately called home. Mom said she did not want it to overshadow the day so she had just kept quiet. I was to discover over the years that she was pretty good at that kind of thing.

Sssssss, is one of the few starring roles Jay had in the movies. It was a B-type picture, but I am happy to point out that the producers were Zanuck/Brown, who two years later would create the greatest adventure/action picture of all time, (If you don’t know,I’m not going to tell you). A couple of years before, he also starred in a low budget horror film called the Brotherhood of Satan. Brotherhood was not a summer release so it will not make this blog, but I am proud to stand up for Sssssss, as a good example of a 1970’s style horror film. There are limited special effects, some good make-up, a creepy concept and some fine performers. Those things can go a long way in entertaining people. Cynical modern audiences might scoff at some of the visual concepts or plot points, a remake of this movie would feature CGI to a ridiculous degree. That is when the idea and the actors would become less important to telling a story.

Jay plays Dr. Stoner, an expert on snake venom and snakes. He is involved in some secretive research. The opening of the film, is a very creepy scene that features two good actors and a sound effect on the audio track that will give you nightmares, and you will see nothing. The story then sets up a couple of revenge plot elements and lays the foundation for some slow building ickyness. If snakes creep you out, this would make a good double feature with “Snakes on a Plane”. You will see how effects and concept don’t always make a movie better, sometime it is just different. Anyway, Dr. Stoner and his daughter run a research lab, and they do a venom milking show as a way to raise money. The new lab assistant from the University is given injections to help protect him from snake bite, or so he thinks.

The actors are all competent. Dirk Bendict plays the new assistant. He has some whiny moments because of the thing that happens to him, but he also gets to chase the girl in the lake naked. This was a sexy scene that is cleverly covered up by key placement of tree branches and leaves in the foreground. I don’t remember that from when the film played in theaters, and I can’ imagine any reason why it would be added later, except for TV showings. I was fifteen when the movie came out, so I probably imagined a lot more than was actually there. I remember thinking that the girl played by Heather Menzies was very attractive. She comes across very nerd like in the movie, so she may not have hit the spot for everyone, but she was my cup of tea at the time. I may be biased, but I thought Strother was great. He plays the role with the right amount of sympathy, sadness and crazy as a loon goofiness. There is a nice scene where he is reading Walt Whitman to a snake, and he is slightly drunk. It comes off as a little weird but also kind of sweet. The snake is his closest friend, and when bad things happen, he plays out the part like a geek based Charles Bronson. Richard Shull, another well known character actor, plays Dr. Stoner’s nemesis, and he is pretty good at being pompous. The comeuppance he gets is disturbing with just one or two camera shots. This would be an unnecessary CGI shot today, good for shock value and laughs but not adding to the horror. This movie played on a double bill with “The Boy who Cried Werewolf”, a movie I remember not at all. This was one of the final examples of a studio booking two films together. Double features continued for another 15 years, but the movies were put together by the theater management rather than the distributor.

The resolution of the movie is a little abrupt, but it coveys a strong horror response in one of our lead characters. It is definitely a 70’s style shot and cut, designed to leave the audience aghast. The movie is not a world beater, but it has enough creeps and a fine performance from the star to justify seeing it. Jay was a nice man and an excellent actor. He died too young and he would have been great in some 80’s movies also. He worked with Paul Newman a half dozen times, and John Wayne about the same. Most people will remember him from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, where he utters the famous line”What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”. His costars in this movie are not as famous, but one of them is a King. (Cobra that is.)

[This Poster is on my wall right now]

[Originally Posted 6/21/2010 on Kirkham A Movie A Day]

The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday

This is one of the films on my list that I never saw in a theater. I can’t explain how that happened at all, this movie has Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed and Robert Culp as the stars. They are all actors I have enjoyed over the years. What it must have been like on the set with Marvin and Reed together. These two never found the bottom of a bottle. What is especially odd though is that Strother Martin is in it and he has a pretty good part. I must have been involved in something to miss an opportunity like this. You know what, this came out in the bicentennial year and my family was on the road for a month that summer. We went back to Battle Creek, driving across the country. I got to drive a lot because I had my license and my Dad needed to be spelled. I know we listened to Queen “A night at the Opera” and The Blue Oyster Cult on eight track most of the way. Dee and I had just gotten serious about seeing each other and before we left on the trip her mother had passed away and we took my Dad’s new car up to the funeral in Bakersfield. It was also an election year and I watched both of the conventions while we were traveling. I remember the speech that President Ford gave and all the hoopla about Reagan maybe being on the ticket with him. We were also on our way to Atlantic City where the Ice Capades was getting their tour ready for the road. We had built several props for the show and Dad was going back as a technical adviser. Dorothy Hamill had just joined the show after her star turn at the winter Olympics and we got a chance to meet her. So, I guess I was a little distracted.

The movie is a comedy with several broad strokes that might be a problem these days. There is not only a white guy playing an Indian, but he is also an English actor to boot. Rape and the clap are the basis of several big punch lines in the movie, and women get popped in the face in a couple of scenes. It was not as crude at the time as it actually plays now. That is a little backwards I suppose, but the problem was not language or nudity or violence, but the way that some of those things were portrayed. If you did not know, “Cathouse Thursday” is the name of the lead female charater played by Kay Lenz, and she is basically trapped in what was euphemistically referred to as White Slavery. She gets the nickname when our drunken Indian (played by a drunken Englishman) steals her and several other girls, he is planning on using them like underwear with the day of the week on it. You can get a good sense of the humor from that set up.

For the first hour, the movie is all over the place. Things happen for no reason, people are connected without really understanding how and there just seems to be a lot of chasing slapstick. It feels like they are stretching to make incidents funny intead of letting them grow out of the characters or the plot. Once we get to the main confrontation between Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed and their former partner played by Robert Culp, things make a little more sense. The movie is set in a very interesting time and place, it is a western but one that takes place after the myths of the west are settling into place. The election of 1908 is in the background and there is a funny campaign song that gets sung by our heroes. They support Taft because they always voted Republican. When it turns out that their traitorous partner is using the Taft campaign as a way to connive his way into office and promote a big prize fight, they start seeing the advantages of William Jennings Bryan.

As I said before, there are a lot of slapstick chases and crude jokes about Indians and their ways. The movie has some charm but it feels like a mess. The clearest part of the story is in the last half hour, but I’m not sure you will sit still and wait for it. There are a number of very clever gags in the film. Strother gets a terrific introduction in a bar scene where he and Lee Marvin turn out to be flimflamming the locals using a rattlesnake. Later there is a bit with a jar full of hornets. Jay plays dirty old man for most of the middle part of the movie, but the characters all yo-yo between wanting revenge and wanting to do right by the girl they end up traveling with.

The poster tag line may have been too prophetic for this movie. I did not choose to leave them out on purpose, but the movie is pretty forgettable.

[Originally published on Kirkham A Movie A Day, June 26, 2010 ]