August 28 Entry in the 2017 TCM Summer Under the Stars Bloggathon, hosted by Journeys in Classic Film
We have a special guest star for this entry on the project, character actor Slim Pickens. The annual TCM Summer of Stars programming usually features the glamorous idols of the Golden Age of Hollywood; John Wayne, Ginger Rogers James Cagney and others. Once and a while, those scene stealers from a classic film will be featured. Actors like Charles Coburn, Thelma Ritter and Edward Everett Horton brought many program pictures to life with their unique presence. Character actors also make the leads look good when they are used in the right way. Like Strother Martin, our guest today is best known for his roles in Westerns, but has an iconic moment in a film that was not his primary oeuvre. What we are going to do today is start with the two films our guest and the subject of this blog have in common, then we will look at two roles that Slim Pickens is probably best known for, and finally we will finish up with a couple of performances that are most typical of his output.
The Slim Pickens/Strother Martin Crossovers
These two accomplished character actors appeared in only two films in common, at least as far as I could discover. The first of these is “The Flim-Flam Man” a 1967 comedy set in rural Georgia. George C. Scott is the star as Mordecai Jones, a legendary con artist who takes on Michael Sarrazin as an apprentice. The two of them have several escapes from locals that they have taken and there is a convoluted love story in the plot as well. Martin and Pickens are two of the rubes that the pair takes advantage of. Unfortunately they share no scenes with one another. Strother plays a storekeeper who buys an illegal punch out gambling board from Scott, at a bargain price, and then gets taken for all the prizes by Sarrazin.
This sequence is only a couple of minutes long but it has the usual Strother Martin touch and George C. Scott hams it up throughout. Slim Pickens scene is only slightly longer but it occurs almost immediately after the previous con. Scott and Sarrazin see Pickens character exiting a bar, and Mordecai declares, “There’s our mark, a belt full of tobacco money and a belly full of beer”.
This con is a “pigeon drop”, similar to the con perpetuated by Robert Redford and Robert Earl Jones at the start of “The Sting”. Pickens is shown a lost wallet, Sarrazzin picks it up, and Scott swoops in with a solution to divvying up the money.
Slim sticks close to the caricature he is supposed to be playing, a greedy, belligerent hick who thinks he is going to take the other two but ends up losing his wad of cash. This is a role he plays much younger than most of his parts. Even when he was young, Slim Pickens seemed to be playing the wizened old hand. His distinctive voice and laconic delivery perfectly conveys the stereotype for this role.
The second film these two have in common is “The Ballad of Cable Hogue“.
This is a Sam Peckinpah film that was made right after the pivotal “The Wild Bunch”. Both Strother and Slim worked for Peckinpah several times in their careers. This may be a fairly odd film from the notorious director, It has the patina of a comedy and a gentle love story at it’s center, but ultimately it is about how revenge can distract you from what is important in life.
Jason Robards is Cable Hogue, a miner who is betrayed by his partners when they are stranded in the desert without enough water between them.
Strother plays Bowen, who along with his same partner from the Wild Bunch, L.Q.Jones as Taggart, leave Hogue in the desert while they sing a morose song about how they got the best of him. They even accuse him of being a coward because he did not shoot them when he had the chance. Hogue struggles for four days but ultimately finds water in a spot that no one believe water existed. Lucky for him it is also on the stagecoach trail and that is where Slim Pickens comes in. Pickens plays Ben Fairchild, the driver of the stage. When Hogue sets up a watering station on the road between two desert towns, Ben becomes a regular visitor. They also become friends and Pickens big scene is providing the Flag that Hogue sets up to mark the station for all kinds of travelers.
In the end of the story, Bowen and Taggart encounter Hogue once more but this time he has the drop on them. This is really the section where Strother get to do his thing. He is a truculent child who whimpers when circumstance go wrong for him. Slim and Strother have two brief scenes where they appear together but there is not much dialogue between them. Pickens is an avuncular cowboy who has made friends with the entrepreneur Cable Hogue. It’s not a major part but it is typical of the cowboys he usually played.
These two great actors have only three scenes together so it’s nice that we can enjoy them on the screen at the same time at least a little bit. Both of them would work with L.Q. Jones again and Strother would make another picture with co-star David Warner several years later. My favorite piece of trivia gleaned from the research I did on this post is that this was the only film that Slim Pickens brother appeared in. They had both worked in the rodeo circuit where they picked up their professional names. Slim was born Louis Lindley, and got the name Slim Pickins because that was all folks in the rodeo thought he was going to make. The trivia that I enjoyed is that his brother took the name “Easy. ”
Slim Pickens is listed Number 126 and Strother Martin Number 170 on an IMDB list of The Top 198 actors (supporting role) in the golden age of Hollywood.
Slim Pickens Best Known Roles
With more than a hundred and seventy credits in his filmography, it would be a monumental task to see all of his roles and try to give them some kind of ranking. It is however safe to say that if you were trying to identify Slim Pickens to someone unfamiliar with his name, there would be two films that would immediately be named for that person. Let me prove this to you, go to Google and on images, [or click here] type in his name. The first two images will be from these two movies.
Just as Strother Martin is well known for the quote from “Cool Hand Luke”, Slim Pickens is remembered for an image in a classic Stanley Kubrick film.
Major “King” Kong is the commander of the bomber group that heads off to blow up the Soviets in “Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”. Originally, this character was to be a fourth part for Peter Sellars in the film. The story is that Sellars did not quite master the Texas accent and when he broke his ankle during production, Kubrick replaced him with Pickens. Slim saw only those parts of the script that involved his character and he played them straight without knowing the film was actually a comedy.
In addition to the “yahoo” as he rides the bomb to it’s destination, Pickens had several lines that are droll comments on military thinking. As he goes through a checklist of items in the planes survival kits he comments:
Major T. J. “King” Kong:
“Survival kit contents check. In them you’ll find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pair of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella’ could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”
Originally the city he named was Dallas, but after the assassination of President Kennedy, they looped in “Vegas” to avoid being insensitive.
Slim Pickens had worked regularly before this film, but after it’s release, he himself said his paychecks and dressing rooms got bigger. As an actor, he was largely cast to play himself. The character was modeled on a famous test pilot who did wear cowboy boots and sported a stetson but the accent and general demeanor were Pickens through and through. According to one story told about the shoot, James Earl Jones, who had a small part as a member of the crew, did not realize that Pickens wasn’t acting until he encountered him off camera and heard him speaking in the same voice as Kong.
The second role for which our subject is best known is as the ramrod cowboy henchman of Harvey Korman in “Blazing Saddles”. Taggart is the boss of the railroad crew who docks men’s pay when they pass out from the heat and values the hand truck more than the black railroad workers. When Clevon Little’s character Bart, swings a shovel at the back of Taggart’s head, the plot begins to thicken.
While sometime cast for comic effect, he was not perhaps well known as a comic actor. Pickens however did not just need a good line of dialogue to sell the humor in a film. This Mel Brooks farce gave him ample opportunity to show off his comic chops in a variety of ways. There are two great reaction shots that Taggart has that get as big a laugh as the material that sets it up. The first takes place in Hedley Lamar’s office, as Korman gets carried away with a small statue that is nude, Taggart notices and does the only thing an underling can do in that situation, he keeps his mouth closed and holds his nose.
Speaking of holding his nose, in probably the most notorious scene in the film, as the audience is laughing at the sound effects and cowboys around the campfire, Pickens again gets a second chance to do a double take as he reacts to the atmospheric conditions surrounding his tent.
“I’d say you had enough” [Beans, for those of you who have never seen the film]
I’m sure everyone will agree that a film like this would probably not get made in today’s business. The language and situations that the Taggart character is involved with would raise so many to protest that he’d have to be cut from the film. There is the continued use of the “N” word by a racist character, done primarily for comic effect. You also have the suggestion that raping all the women would be a good time. To cap it off, his last scene involves abusing characters that are mincing homosexual stereotypes. Pickens lived and worked in a different world than exists today. I’m sure he’d just say
“Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks.”
Assorted Additional Roles
There are three other films that I’d like to mention for various reason. The first is an example of Pickens being used sparingly but effectively because of type casting. Joe Dante’s “The Howling” is filled with character actors, most of whom have minor parts in the film. John Carradine shows up as a creepy old man [at this time he was in fact an old man]. Kevin McCarthy, a Dante favorite, is a news producer, Patrick McNee has a more substantial role as a psychologist, but guess what part Slim Pickens gets. If you guessed Sheriff, you should collect a prize. Out of the hundreds of film and TV roles Slim Pickens appeared in, he was a local Sheriff more often than any other type. His cowboy drawl probably accounts for the fact that even in a contemporary horror like this, he seems to be at home on the range, and Sheriff with a cowboy hat still works in in modern times.
As I said, it’s not a major role but it is indicative of how Pickens was largely perceived by Hollywood. Even though he was usually cast as a peace officer, sometimes he played a good ole boy on the wrong side of the law. “White Line Fever” is a “B” movie from the 70s that was marketed based on the Citizen’s Band Radio craze of the time. Mob guys get a hold of the trucking business in the southwest and Pickens plays a flunky for another well known western actor L.Q. Jones. As a kid I always remembered that Pickens was in this film, but not because his performance was excellent. In fact it was one of the few times I felt as if he were phoning it in. The reason it made such an impression however is that Pickens character Duane Haller, is murdered by his bosses in a disturbing and unusual way.
Duane is lured out onto the open highway by a woman who works for the company as well. There, he is surrounded by three big rigs that force him to the side of the road. The thugs in the truck, drag him from his vehicle and then stretch him across the highway.
One of their trucks runs over Duane at very high speeds. It was a horrifying minute from a minor film but it was effectively staged with shots from behind the character, in front of the character and from above as the big rig runs him down. His distinctive costume and hat are briefly shown fluttering down the road after contact has been made. Pickens only gets a quick reaction shot but you can see from these pictures how well the scene played out.
In the seventies, he worked frequently in big budget films and low budget features. A brief listing will give you some idea of how prolific he was: “The Getaway”, “Rancho DeLuxe”, “The Apple Dumpling Gang”, “The White Buffalo”, “The Swarm”, “Beyond the Posieden Adventure”, “1941”, and “The Black Hole” are just a few of the films he made and made better with his involvement.
In my view, his best on screen performance was in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. Once again he was cast as a cowboy and a Sheriff, but he was a cantankerous lawman who claims that he will only cooperate with James Coburn’s Pat Garrett, if he gets paid. However, once he gets one of the Kid’s gang locked up and his wife who serves as a deputy joins him, he returns the gold dollar to Garret and rides out on a fateful mission.
There is a shootout with the gang and most of them are killed, Sheriff Baker is mortally wounded and he walks over to the nearby river bank with his wife close behind and sits down to contemplate his life as he dies.
It is a wordless sequence that is made incredibly poignant by the presence on the soundtrack of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin on Heaven’s Door”, which was written for this film.
It is a heartbreaking moment and Pickens makes us feel the full weight of this loss without his trademark drawl. For the five minutes he is in this lengthy film, his moments are the most indelible ones, and they are a great example of the on screen impact that today’s TCM star had on the movies that he shone in.
The Shootout and aftermath can be watched here:
This is a big one from 1972. Strother is fourth billed, ahead of Christopher Lee even. The reason for this is pretty obvious, the three brothers are the villains of the piece and Jay was one of the many prairie scum he was known to play. I’ve picked this film to do next for two somewhat interesting reasons. First of all, it is a movie that I own on Laserdisc, and having recently reorganized all my discs to ease access to and be able to display, this came up and it was a great letterboxed title. The second reason I am taking care of this one now is that I am participating in a blog challenge that is hosted by my online colleague MovieRob. Rob may be the most prolific film blogger I know. He posts two or three reviews on a daily basis. He has a monthly series he calls “Genre Grandeur”, this month’s genre is Revenge films, and Hannie Caulder fits squarely into that category.
Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin are the Clemmons Brothers, a notorious trio of cutthroat slime who are also fairly inept. After a botched robbery where they leave behind a lot of bodies but escape with no money, after a long posse chase they need fresh horses. They kill the proprietor of a way station and before they make good with the theft of his horses, they discover his wife in the adobe house at the location and proceed to brutalize her in savage fashion.
I don’t think anyone would take the subject of rape lightly, but one of the things that marks this film as a product of it’s time is the cavalier attitude of the three, as if they are having a sex romp rather than beating and violating an innocent woman. There are some lines spoken by the criminals later in the story, that reflect their bemused memory of the encounter they have with the victim. Raquel Welch plays Hannie and she was at the height of her popularity as an actress and a sex symbol at the time this movie was made. The marketing of the film made it abundantly clear that she would be on screen for much of the time with nothing but a poncho to cover herself up with.
That is the set up for the revenge plot, we want her to get back at these sons of bitches in the worst way possible. Hannie is left naked and alone with her dead husband and a burning house. How will she ever be able to be in a position to do anything to get some justice. Well remember, it is a traveling way station she was at, and along comes a man who need to feed and rest his horse. Hannie is suspicious, after what she just went through who could blame her. It turns out that the man is somewhat sympathetic but really does not want to be involved. His name is Thomas Luther Price and it turns out that he is a bounty hunter of some renown. Price is played by Robert Culp, a familiar face from television and movies from the 60s on. He would co-star with Strother again in the 1976 Western Comedy,” the Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday. ”
He wants nothing to do with Hannie, but of course her determination and the circumstances eventually force him to relent and agree to help her prepare for seeking revenge on the three outlaws. The movie then takes some very traditional turns at filling in the second act. Those moments however are often entertaining although not always clear. Hannie sees Price collect the bounty on a wanted man that he guns down. Price uses part of the bounty to pay to bury the dead man in an appropriate manner, this marks him as something of an honorable man. She decides to emulate his behavior for the rest of the film.
He decides that they need to visit a friend of his who is a gunsmith down in Mexico. The idea here is that she will have a weapon made for her that is light enough for her to handle. He will have time to condition her and train her in the techniques that he uses. The gunsmith is located on a beautiful stretch of beach at a two story hacienda, just right for some sunsets with kids and dogs on the beach. Christopher Lee is the gunsmith who builds her the weapon while sharing back story and creating a closer relationship between Thomas and Hannie. [This is apparently the only Western that Chistopher Lee ever appeared in.]
For no particular reason, a bandito and his army arrive while our heroes are at this idyllic location. Bailey, Lee’s character does not want to do business with the group and a confrontation takes place. This allows Culp and Lee to show off some western action skills and it gives Welch an initiation into the process of killing a man with her own hands. Prices instructions will echo back to her in the climax of the film. Another character is introduced as well, a silent apparent competitor to Price, who also needs some gun work and appears to be more intimidating to the gunsmith than the band of outlaws.
While Hannie and Price are getting ready in Mexico. the Clemens brothers are having their own travails. The three characters play like a sick version of the three Stooges. Borgnine is Emmett, the Moe like older brother with a seething temper and what little brains there are between the three of them.
Jack Elam is Frank, the middle brother who delights in abusing the needy youngest, Rufus, played by our subject of this blog, Strother “Jay” Martin. In a failed stage robbery, Frank gets shot in the leg and the three bicker about who is at fault and whether or not their deceased father would allow the two older siblings to disabuse Rufus so mercilessly. They also continue to run from the law and seek opportunities to steal from whoever.
Eventually the brothers ride into the same town as Price and Hannie, there is an incident that ends up leaving Hannie on her own and she proceeds to run through the revenge plot with a vengeance [tautology intended.]. Frank gets his with his pants down and that leaves Emmett infuriated. As he and Rufus are burying their brother, the following dialogue takes place:
Rufus Clements: I stole a Bible, Em. Do you want to read over Frank?
Emmett Clements: You know damn right well I can’t read! The hell with him anyway!
Rufus Clements: You shouldn’t have done that, Em. You’re gonna get God mad at us and he’s liable to…
Emmett Clements: Shut your damn mouth!
Rufus Clements: Well, I want to say something over Frank!
Emmett Clements: Well, say it and get it the hell over with!
Rufus Clements: All right… Frank… you’re dead! God… damn if I don’t miss you already, you miserable bastard!
The film is a pretty serious drama but you can see that there are strong comic elements being added here to make being in the presence of these horrible men more tolerable. Strother specialized in these ineffectual men who have power or the illusion of power but are really weak in the end. His twangy voice and whiny tone tell us that he is a frustrated man. He and Ernest Borgnine starred in “The Wild Bunch” just a couple of years before. They had no scenes together in that movie except for the gunfight at the beginning. Strother’s character in that movie is only slightly less comic but definitely equally degenerate. Borgnine is the one who has to reverses the kind of character he is playing. He is still a hard guy, but not an effective one as Emmett Clemen.
There is a great shot earlier in the film which is shown from Rufus’s point of view. When the brothers are holding up the bank at the start of the movie, we see the perspective from inside of the barrels of the shotgun that Rufus carries.
The director of this movie was Burt Kennedy, a veteran of Westerns in movies and television. He directed the comedy Westerns “Support Your Local Sheriff” and “Support Your Local Gunfighter” with James Garner as the lead. So he knew how to get the humor into a story but he was also a stylish film maker who brought something extra to the movies he was in charge of. He almost certainly contributed these odd comic moments to the script which had several others credited as well.
As Hannie starts to take her revenge on the brothers, there are moments from the past that come back to haunt her. The voice of her mentor reminds her where to look during a gunfight and how to be certain that the man she is shooting is dead. She also engages in some repartee with her victims, again with the comic in mind.
Rufus Clements: Just drop the damn bottle.
Hannie Caulder: with her back turned to Rufus. Hello Rufus.
Rufus Clements: I heard you got real smart since we saw you last.
Hannie Caulder: Funny, I didn’t hear the same thing about you.
I doubt that it is much of a spoiler to say that Hannie gets her revenge in the end. A story like this would be most unsatisfying if there was no catharsis. Raquel Welch may never be seen as the consummate quick draw artist, but she looks great slinging her gun and standing in the tight pants and poncho that she sports for most of the running time of the film.
One of the odd things about the movie is that it has a feminist sensibility while all the while exploiting the sexual elements of the leading lady. There is a gratuitous scene that does a little titillating and is not essential to the plot, but because there is no actual nudity, the audience has to be given something to satisfy their voyeuristic desires. When Price and Hannie first get to town, he grabs a pair of pants for her at the local emporium. They are much too large, but as children of the 60s knew, before pre-shrunk jeans were a thing, nothing helped the fit as much as soaking in the bath to let your trousers fit you. So here is that moment from this film.
You may all thank me now.
This is a solid movie with a traditional revenge theme, but it inserts a woman in the role of avenging angel and it takes place in the old west. If you like this idea and this movie, let me recommend “The Quick and the Dead” to you. That Sharon Stone western is actually a better film, but it does not have Strother Martin, Jack Elam and Ernest Borgnine. Instead it features Gene Hackman, Russel Crowe and a supporting cast of equally vile criminals. They had a lot they were trying to make up for.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 make 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]
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 ]