Enter the Dragon [1973)

Hollywood fail.  Yes.  Bruce Lee’s first three films are each better than this hunk of bejeweled shit.  Most notably, it shows how talented Lee was as a director (Way of the Dragon) compared to Robert Clouse.  But then we get the message that Lee was an “uncredited” director on this film.  Is it a reference to the fight scenes and their staging?  It seems, rather, that Lee merely directed the opening sequence of the film under consideration.

Back to Clouse then.  Perhaps his other films were better, but this one really misses the mark.  All of the special details which made The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon such wonderful films are generally missing here.

Don’t get me wrong:  there are great moments within.  When dealing with a talent like Lee, there is always something salvageable.  Yet still, it is mind-boggling to me that the addition of major studio backing (Warner Bros.) only served to dilute the power of what Lee had been steadily building through his filmography.

But of course that would all end on July 20, 1973 when Lee died (just six days before Enter the Dragon premiered in Hong Kong).  Lee was in Hong Kong to dine with Lazenby.  George Lazenby.  The two intended to work together.  Lee met Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. to discuss his next film Game of Death.

Cerebral edema, they say.  Had occurred as recently as two months prior.  Seizures and headaches.  Mannitol.

A headache on the day of his death led to Equagesic (aspirin and meprobamate).  Analgesic/tranquilizer.

Swelling of the brain…  Was his death really an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer component of Equagesic?

A sad day.  Eleven days later his pallbearers included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, and George Lazenby.

Yes, there seems to be some dispute between the doctor in charge of autopsy (Donald Teare) and Lee’s doctor in Hong Kong.  It doesn’t really add confidence to the conclusion of the former to note that he (Teare) was recommended by Scotland Yard.  This was, of course, during the 156 years which Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony (ending in 1997).

Had Lee eaten cannabis or hashish?  Was this the true cause of his death?  Some have claimed that Lee did this regularly to relieve the stress of fame.

Dr. Peter Wu, who had treated Lee two months prior to his death, called Dr. Teare “an expert on cannabis.”  Hmmm…

Teare’s conclusion was that the Equagesic had killed Lee.

I do find it suspicious that Lee died just six days prior to the Hong Kong release of this film.  The $850,000 film would go on to rake in $200 million by 1992.  Less than three weeks after his funeral in Seattle, the film premiered in the U.S.

Clouse would go on to cobble together footage of Lee and a couple of stand-ins for the 1978 release Game of Death.  It is interesting to note that the plot of Game of Death involves an international martial arts film star struggling against a racketeering syndicate.  What is more, this particular plot element seems to have not existed when shooting was done prior to Lee’s demise.  Perhaps Clouse redeemed himself in code???

-PD

In Like Flint [1967)

It all started with Errol Flynn.  Flynn, accused of statutory rape by two under-age girls in November 1942 was defended by (among others)  the American Boys’ Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn.  That’s right:  ABCDEF.  One member of the organization was William F. Buckley, Jr.  Ah Buckley…not the heroic Bill Buckley who died in Beirut (after helping to expose Project MKUltra).  Nay, we speak of the harpsichord man.  The Knight of Malta (like Ronald Reagan). 

In 1943 (that is, the next year) the Buckley in question would go from ABCDEF (Z.O.W.I.E. anyone?) to being a student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  After a short stay, he entered (?) WWII out of U.S. Army Officer Candidate School and soon enough (at war’s end) was at Yale and in the loving arms of Skull and Bones (being a member in good standing). 

Buckley was recruited by the CIA in 1951.  The story goes that he served just two years, but strikingly one of those two was back in Mexico City as a “political action specialist” in the Special Activities Division under E. Howard Hunt.

Now there’s a name…  Hunt, along with G. Gordon Liddy (what is it with these guys and first initials?), engineered the first Watergate burglary on behalf of President Richard Nixon and his administration.  That is to say:  in 1972 the President of the United States of America’s “people” broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.  In on this whole thing was another fellow keen on the aforementioned self-referent nomenclature:  L. Patrick Gray (the acting head of the FBI at the time).

This immense tangent serves to set the stage for what is not really that great a movie:  In Like Flint.  Yes, the phrase is thought to have originated in reference to good old Errol Flynn (the demigod [not to be confused with demagogue] of our friends the ABCDEF).

All of this is to say that the “plot” of In Like Flint is beyond fanciful (and utterly jaw-dropping in its dated sexism).  Yet, every day the machinations of strange organizations with nefarious plans swirl around us in orbits mostly unnoticed.

I must say that I preferred the direction of Daniel Mann’s Our Man Flint to the staging here of Gordon Douglas.  Don’t get me wrong:  there are some priceless moments herein.  At one point James Coburn utters the phrase “an actor as President…” (as if the whole thing seemed too preposterous to be real).  Of course the U.S. would go on to actually have an actor as President when Reagan assumed the position for the majority of the 1980s.

The tape recorders in hair dryers idea bears a spooky resemblance to what the other Bill Buckley observed at McGill University in Montreal (under the horrific guidance of Dr. Ewen Cameron):  that is to say MKUltra. 

More light-hearted is Coburn’s hilarious “dolphin talk” near the top of the film.  Fans of The Illuminatus Trilogy will doubtless find this particularly poignant. 

Spy Chief Framed As Libertine…  This brings to mind the strange case of Gen. David Petraeus.  In the film, intelligence (?) chief Lloyd Cramden is stoned and dethroned in just such a manner by a junta of which Gen. Carter is head.  Once again Flint shows his boundless talents (including a stint as hypnotist and another as a ballet dancer).  Rahm Emanuel would surely be proud.  Leave it to the polymath Flint to deduce female cosmonauts from a cardiograph (80 BPM) on Earth. 

Coburn as a Cuban is definitely a knee-slapper.  And there is plenty of eye candy (as in the appropriately-named Operation Smooch).  All in all this is great downtime for spy and enthusiast alike.

-PD 

Hard Times [1975)

Pauline Kael may have written about this film, but ultimately Susan Sontag’s recognition of Godard’s Vivre sa vie is more important to my philosophy of film criticism.  I mention Kael because she certainly championed director Walter Hill and for that I commend her.  I am even inclined to gravitate towards Andrew Sarris instead of Kael (though both seem mostly inconsequential to my understanding of cinema).  I eye aye. 

Let this suffice to lay the groundwork for what is auteur Walt Hill’s first film.  I have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Hill because I was fortunate enough to once work with him.  He shook my hand and looked at me with a grandfatherly gaze of transference (or so it seemed).  Never had I been surrounded by Panavision cameras and the whole thing really made an impression on me, but the biggest impression was made by Hill’s kindness.

So I am unequivocally biased as concerns his oeuvre.  That said, this film isn’t perfect.  The script girl missed a big anachronism right off the bat:  an electric diesel locomotive.  Oops.  Set in the Great Depression, there are plenty of steam trains in this period piece, but the first train engine we see hadn’t yet been invented.  I credit my father with the keen eye (and rely on his expertise as a lifetime railroad man).

Also bad is James Coburn.  I LOVE James Coburn, but he is not particularly good in this flick.  I will mention The Carey Treatment till my dying breath as an example of his depth as an actor (especially when juxtaposed with his equally brilliant portrayal of Derek Flint).  Not sure what the problem was.  Perhaps he played the character in question just as Hill wanted, but it is really not a great use of his talents. 

Now for the good news.  Charles Bronson is magnificent in what is really an astounding picture for a first-time director.  Furthermore, we see the New Orleans which Hill would return to in Bullet to the Head (2012).  The two films even share a finale:  a face-off in a cavernous warehouse. 

Hill’s direction of the taciturn Bronson makes the whole thing a terse masterpiece.  As befits its concision of expression, I shall stop here.  Bravo Mr. Hill!

-PD

Our Man Flint [1966)

Derek Flint, the superspy with four girlfriends who picks up a fifth during the course of this film, has the most interesting bed in film history.  In many ways, he’s infinitely more interesting than James Bond.  Of course it’s all a joke, right?  Well, sort of.  It’s not actually that much more far-fetched than the Bond series.  In fact, we simply have a superspy whose life makes explicit everything inferred by the exciting Mr. Bond.  To be sure, there is not much inferred in the Bond series (save sexual inferences).

Director Daniel Mann had helmed BUtterfield 8 in 1960 which starred Elizabeth Taylor.  His filmography otherwise is not really a stunning list to read, but his direction here is fine indeed.  He gets a lot of help from his lead star James Coburn.  In 1960 Coburn was one of The Magnificent Seven.  Coburn was a very capable actor (as evinced in the little-known Blake Edwards film The Carey Treatment).

But yes, this is a spy spoof in the strictest sense.  Instead of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., we get Z.O.W.I.E. (or, actually, for the bad guys, Galaxy).  Funny that an organization wielding power through controlling worldwide weather should make its first assassination attempt on our hero by using a harp (or is it a HAARP?).

The whole bouillabaisse section is infinitely hilarious.  Like a monk through extreme concentration, Flint also places himself in suspended animation twice during the film.  The second time he does so to play dead (quite successfully) which allows for his escape once his watch tickles him back to consciousness.  Flint knows every trick in the book…from Shaolin to spetsnaz.

Gila Golan is excellent as (you guessed it) Gila.

The presidential ringtone (3 x 5) is a catchy, kitsch motif throughout the whole production.  The music in general (by Jerry Goldsmith) is excellent.

If you like James Bond films, you probably have a sense of humor.  If you can stomach the scattershot Casino Royale (1967), this will seem like the greatest film ever made.  It really is a joyful little classic.

 

-PD

 

The Return of the Pink Panther [1975)

From the start it is a pale imitation of Topkapi.

But the film is salvaged by upping the ridiculousness of Sellers’ French accent.

The grand premise is similar to Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), but the Pink Panther series had by 1975 lost that je ne sais quoi which made the first two films of the series minor masterpieces.

This film is really all about Sellers’ uncanny skill at impressions (and there are some good ones):  the phone company man, the German-speaking housekeeper and even the Tony Clifton-esque playboy.

It is interesting to note that Sellers actually did have a residence in Gstaad (one of the principal settings for this film).

Also interesting to note is that Graham Stark (who had previously played Hercule LaJoy in A Shot In The Dark (1964), the second episode in the series) plays the role of Pepi.  Pepi is actually the only other interesting character in this whole film.  There is a sort of “Signor Ugarte meets Marty Feldman’s Igor” about his performance.

The direction at least has some interesting “psychedelic” moments (I’m thinking of the two slow-motion shots of Sellers flying through the air attempting an unsuccessful karate kick).

One thing is certain:  Sellers had a comedic magic which even caused his fellow actors (Catherine Schell in this film) to visibly “crack up” during takes.  The “corpsing” (as it is known) will be familiar to viewers of Saturday Night Live.  Sellers really embodied the part (as any good purveyor of imitations would).  When true comedic genius is present, it is often hard to find a Zeppo Marx.

But what I find most fascinating about this awful film (awful aside from Sellers) is that the director Blake Edwards had just three years previous made a fantastic drama starring James Coburn called The Carey Treatment (1972).  Edwards was no slouch as a director.  That then brings into question the underrated acting skills of Coburn (Derek Flint for spy-spoof enthusiasts).

With the immense talent of Sellers and the thorough competence of Edwards, I can only surmise that (like the Bond series beginning with You Only Live Twice (1967)) the series itself became a stale constraint due to pressure from above.  The only real innovation allowed to happen was in the liberties Sellers took with the Clouseau character.  The accent is more indecipherable, yet that becomes formulaic over the course of 114 minutes as the new gag is run into the ground.  The imitations are creative and elaborate (almost like a playful take on Dr. Strangelove), but none of them seem particularly well thought-out.  Somehow there was a disconnect between the talents of Sellers and Edwards.  Had they been creating as one, this awfully good film might have been great.

 

-PD