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The Black Connection (1974)
"The trouble with her is she don't know a lady when she sees one.. and I am a motherf***in' lady!"
I'm slightly surprised at this movie having a relatively high IMDb score of, to date, 5.5/10 on 61 votes. All film appreciation is subjective, of course, but there's very little that's objectively good about this incredibly amateurish outing. The acting is, almost across the board, abysmal, often hilariously so, the editing is chronic, and the dialogue frequently lousy. ("I'm hurtin', sweet baby, I'm hurtin' and it ain't for that big beautiful black dong o'yours.")
And yet it's all so much fun. As a bad movie, it never fails to entertain, even though 90% of the plot seems to be people having conversations on telephones and telling each other what's about to happen. Of the lead character, then it's claimed "he has a paranoia about phones", but if that's the case, he's the only one, with 17 phone calls being made over the short 87 minute runtime. Even scenes that don't feature calls include phones placed on restaurant tables, scenes opening with an unheard call being placed down on the receiver, or characters repeatedly talking about how they will/won't make a phone call, a tantalising glimpse of telecommunication-based excitement.
Direction and blocking of scenes is so bad it's unintentionally hilarious. This said, there's a very funny karate scene and a hotel receptionist who almost laughs on camera, so possibly all concerned were in on some great joke. The three leads are also members of Checkmates, Ltd., a group who provide the music. Thankfully they're far better musicians than they are actors, and many of the songs despite one being named after the film's unfortunate alternate title "Run, N*****, Run" are very catchy.
I was pleased to complete the credits for this movie on the IMDb, though one omission remains: the writer, or writers. Only a script superviser (sic) is included in the credits, with no screenwriter seemingly given the blame. I did stumble across a blog that had a post purportedly from star Bobby Stevens, who claimed he co-wrote it (not specifying who with) and that with all the behind-the-scenes difficulties they had, it was a wonder the film was made at all. Thank God you succeeded, Bobby, because this atrocious movie is a real gem.
A generous 3/10 for quality, but at least 8/10 for entertainment value.
"What's that for?" "For you!" "Well I don't want it!"
Stanley Lupino seems to be largely forgotten today, or, if remembered at all, more due for his daughter, Ida. Indeed, in February 2016 a commemorative blue plaque, dedicated to both of them, was placed at the house where Ida was born.
Finding information on Stanley is hard. He and his Happy co-star, Laddie Cliff (who went on to appear with him again in Sporting Love and Over She Goes) both died before their 50s, and both of them had film careers that finished before the end of the Second World War. Such a short time frame puts him several generations past being remembered, and it's only due to an afternoon screening of this movie on ITV around the late 1980s that, as a child of the 70s, I'd heard of him at all.
Of Lupino's 13 movies from 1931-1939, none of them have, to date, above 30 votes on the IMDb... five of them haven't even passed the minimum votes benchmark. While eight of his other films have a review on them, proving that he's not without his remaining fans (though the reviews are the work of only two people), a search on the internet reveals astonishingly little about him.
To date, Happy has just a dozen votes, and appears to have only been released on DVD as part of a collection, with the even more obscure "Invitation To The Waltz" on the same disc. 1933 was the year of King Kong and Duck Soup, of Laurel and Hardy and The Invisible Man. In among British output like The Private Life of Henry VIII, this lighthearted, lightweight musical about a down-on-his luck musician seems to almost completely forgotten.
Discussion of both comedy and song is highly subjective, though the film, based on a play and starring a musical hall comedian, is of a rhythm that may irritate some. Jokes are often so tired it's easy to forget they may have been new once: "I've got a screw loose somewhere" says Frank Brown (Lupino), only to hear the predictable rejoinder of "I've known that for years." An introductory discussion with the director reminds us that light sexism was also very much in vogue: "Adam took a rib from his side, and invented the first talkie and it's still in use."
Even the decent gags ("I can tell you how to sell twice as much lager [...] fill your glasses right up.") are accompanied by a long pause or reaction shot, there to give the audience time to get over the laughter. It does mean the movie initially drags along in fits and starts, any chucklesome moment then brought to a halt as pure silence fills the screen as a stop gap.
Yet once the romance plot kicks in, the film gets into gear, and there's a certain freshness elsewhere. Lupino and Cliff are two broke songwriters who live in an attic and have physical fights continually (which is where the title quote comes from) and living below them is their older friend, a man who collects geese. But, crucially, there's Lupino. Although the style of humour may be dated, there's a certain kind of charm about him, and with his enthused delivery and slightly effeminate appearance (including what appears to be heavy eye make- up) he's a delight. There's a nicely camp camaraderie between him and Cliff, where they're not afraid to dress each other, hold hands between fights, or Lupino can call him "sweetheart" without batting a mascara'd eye.
Then there are the songs. Despite being at least 25 years since I first saw the film, the title track is so instantly catchy that I had no problem remembering it. There are several idiosyncrasies that add to the charm: the film is set in France, though virtually none of the actors talk in a French accent; and although cast as a romantic singing lead, Lupino is perhaps neither what you'd call a traditional leading man, nor a classical singer. More Formby than Fred Astaire, there's something endearing about him, even several decades after his kind of humour was in fashion.
Although not high art, Frederic Zelnik clearly has ideas beyond "point and shoot" in his direction, and if there's nothing here that hadn't been done before, it's work put together with considerable effort, including dissolves, tracking shots and an animated sequence with the stars in the sky. Such a devotion to the craft of what is really just a throwaway entertainment make it easy to overlook the very occasional boom mike shadows that play over the actors.
For a film of the time, there's also a certain racy quality to some of the humour. The loose plot has Lupino attempting to sell a rich businessman his invention of a car alarm, with the businessman looking at glamour magazines before his arrival. Eventually Lupino hosts the businessman at a large party, pretending it's his own house for show, and some of the various goings on allude to jokes that were close to the line for 1933, even if they sound tame 83 years on. One lady explaining that she and her husband used to live in "Cincinnati" hiccups on alcohol after the first syllable, drawing a shocked response.
With his slightly cocky persona, only a man of Lupino's likable qualities could make it work, and highlights include his geese owner friend's drunken dance at a party, plus Lupino and Cliff having a fight while performing a tap dance routine. Eventually the plot ties together and Lupino marries the businessman's daughter, Cliff marries his own love, and their friend buys two female geese for his two ganders, who understandably hadn't laid any eggs. They all drive off into the sunset, and everyone is, as the song goes, happy.
Blackboard Jumble (1957)
"Hypertension's getting everybody down."
A so-so spoof of the classic Blackboard Jungle that does sadly outstay its welcome even at less than seven minutes.
The problem is that, despite a likable characterisation on the Southern-accented wolf (a rare example of a positive Southern American character in the media), the plot relies on repetition. The wolf goes into a classroom situation with earnest albeit dim-witted intentions, only for the kids to turn the tables and cause him physical harm. Over and over.
A customary racy joke is the wolf's cry when a missile accidentally penetrates him anally, and a suspect joke is the wolf, having been blown up, being transformed into blackface. However, this is thankfully understated compared to other instances in cartoons of the period, such as Bugs Buggy in 1953's "Southern Fried Rabbit".
In all, this isn't a bad short, and the one thing that stands out is how endearing the wolf character is, even if the animation now appears primitive and crude, even for the time. Yet it's a one-joke short that quickly becomes tiring.
Draining and self-congratulatory superhero antics...
Like Guardians of the Galaxy and the two Avengers movies before it, Deadpool shows a worrying amount of smugness, its own self-amusement only equalled by its disregard for the intelligence of the audience. There's not a single one of the "instant reverse" jokes in The Avengers that even a very credulous small child wouldn't see coming, and Deadpool's scatological humour aims for little higher than the lowest (or broadest) common denominator.
It's a crowdpleaser, and not awful, but if fart jokes, genital punching and a plot that resembles a 15-year-old's masturbation fantasies aren't your thing, you may find it all a little wearying. The gags are predictable and relentless... which, in fairness, is kind of the point for "the merc with the mouth", but doesn't make it any less tiresome.
In an age where scarcely any film lacks postmodernism, Deadpool's constant fourth wall breaks seem almost passé. While a reasonable conceit in and of itself, there's nothing particularly intelligent done with it, the fourth wall just used as another vessel for some masturbation gags.
The best jokes in the film - Deadpool frequently commenting on why A-List X-Men don't appear - lose lustre when you realise it's made by Fox and so they could well have. Current voting on the IMDb sees it just inside the top 50 all-time greatest films, comfortably edging out Citizen Kane, M, Rashomon and Taxi Driver.
Plot-wise, then a thug also being the brains behind the bad guy's operation lacks credulity, though this is a film where Stan Lee urges prostitution, so all bets are very much off.
The Lost Man (1969)
"You go to movies a lot?"
Not that often, it seems, as Beverly Todd's minor character Sally Carter claims to have named herself after Dorothy Dandridge and asks Poitier's character if he's a fan. As he starred with Dandridge in Porgy and Bess, Todd never wonders why the man in her bath tub looks just like Sidney Poitier, but it's a nice tribute to Dorothy, who had died just four years previously.
Based on the same source novel as the artistically superior Odd Man Out (1947), this drama sees wholesome Sidney Poitier retooled as conflicted black militant Jason Higgs. Somehow it doesn't quite gel, despite Poitier's considerable thespic skill, as by this stage his general screen persona was too rigidly defined. The upshot is it's a little like watching Lionel Richie sing Fight The Power, or seeing Extremities remade starring Bill - er, well, you get the idea. That said, it's hard to imagine another actor making the character of Higgs so ultimately sympathetic, with his tendency towards reluctant violence.
The film closes the chapter on Poitier's 60s output, just two years on from his commercial peak; only forgettable comedy "For Love Of Ivy" coming between it and him being the biggest draw at the box office. After this, it's largely downhill: patchy Virgil Tibbs sequels, four one-off movies (including the underrated The Wilby Conspiracy), three comedies with Bill Cosby(!) and then retirement. Poitier would of course come back in the 80s for bit parts and then get involved in TV movies... while these comeback films weren't, generally, awful, it's astonishing that both the artistic and commercial appeal of Sidney Poitier could be squandered so drastically.
As a closer to the decade, this isn't a bad one to go out on, possibly scraping in as one of his 15 best movies, if only just. One-time director Robert Alan Aurthur gives a bleak outlook to the exteriors, though the studio work, including the lighting and colour palette, does unfortunately look flat and like the aforementioned TV movies that Sidney would drift into during the 90s. And as excellent a musician as Quincy Jones is, his soundtrack does sometimes seem at odds with the content; or possibly it's just dated in an unappealing way.
Poitier gets some considered lines of dialogue in his lead role, though the near-2 hour runtime is perhaps at least a quarter of an hour overlong, and a romantic subplot with Joanna Shimkus feels artificially grated onto the narrative. Shimkus' involvement is perhaps the most famous element of the picture, as she became Poitier's second wife seven years later. Her input does ultimately lead to a tragic ending, as her love for Poitier's humanised militant elicits an emotional response from the audience, though the more the film turns into a straight thriller, the less vibrant the dialogue.
The Mark of the Hawk (1957)
"What are you... an Uncle Tom?"
Cheaply made and often badly staged, The Mark of the Hawk is nevertheless a worthwhile venture despite its failings.
With its wordy script, in some hands it can seem poetic, notably Sidney Poitier's. (Still a year off his first star billing, despite being the nominal lead in this, his tenth movie). Yet in lesser hands it can seem leaden, ham-fisted and trite. Certainly David Goh was unlikely to take any Academy Awards for his work here, and he's not alone. Parts of the film look like one of the best dramas Poitier was ever involved with... other parts look like an amateur home movie.
The film begins with an air of sophistication, but the longer it runs, the more it starts to unravel. Poitier's intelligent militant Obam begins to turn his back on the idea of independence when he learns of the love of Jesus, the film's concept of exploring all sides of the argument evaporating for a syruppy get-out. While many of the themes are looked at from a mature perspective, the film's tagline "Against Voodoo Fury... The Flame of Faith!" was something which set out to unintentionally undermine it.
We go from a manor house party with elegantly crafted lines and gradually descend through the ranks of amusingly kitsch flashbacks, all the way down to Eartha Kitt deciding to make this political message film a light musical. A rare British movie appearance for Poitier, his future forays into this arena - A Warm December, The Wilby Conspiracy and, particularly, To Sir With Love - all reaped richer rewards. Ultimately The Mark of the Hawk goes from a lesser- known gem in his career and down to something of a missed opportunity.
Pressure Point (1962)
Terrific two-hander with Poitier as a prison psychiatrist playing opposite Bobby Darin's Nazi prisoner. Poitier's counsellor doesn't get the opportunity for many flourishes - he takes on the role by wearing glasses, basically - so it's up to Darin to get the showy stuff. While beautifully shot, it does touch towards broad melodrama at various stages.
Like a theatre production, Darin's nameless prisoner gets his childhood flashbacks recreated. At some points we see Darin as a boy on the psychiatrist's couch, then cut to scenes with Darin's mother, lipsynching the words the boy is speaking. There are scenes where he threatens to stab his imaginary friend, and all of the flashbacks occur within flashbacks, as Poitier's character is relating events to Peter Falk in the present day. If all this sounds confusing, then it isn't on screen, where an odd Twilight Zone vibe is disrupted by somewhat melodramatic incidental music. With a more sympathetic score this could have been a more expressionistic movie; as it is, it can be somewhat laboured in intent, the broadness of the Hollywood machine, yet still great despite it.
The climax is somewhat underdeveloped, however, the prisoner's story getting a fixed ending where perhaps none was needed.
The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
"A politically committed Indian dentist? That sounds like all the people I can't stand at a cocktail party."
The Wilby Conspiracy is the second of Sidney Poitier's three films about apartheid in South Africa. In 1952 he had appeared under Canada Lee in the slow but rewarding Cry, The Beloved Country. Fast forward to 1997 and he's playing Nelson Mandela to Michael Caine's F.W. de Klerk in a pretty decent TV movie.
It's Caine he stars with here, getting top billing after his career was somewhat resurrected by Uptown Saturday Night. It's an overlooked film, with some great comic chemistry between them and some genuinely witty lines. Stories of how Poitier's Shack Twala was electo tortured in prison are rendered blackly comic by their telling, with Poitier showing more genuine comic flair than he ever did mugging opposite Bill Cosby.
For such serious subjects the film flirts closely with the line between gallows humour and overt comedy, but the wit of the script always keeps it from going overboard. At one point Twala explains how, at school, he discovered Marx and Lenin instead of Mark and Luke and from there "had absolutely no difficulty getting into jail." Handsomely shot with Kenya doubling for South Africa, it's only the rear projection for car/helicopter scenes in Pinewood Studios that detract.
As the film progresses, the events do start to become more fantastical, and it's difficult to know what's more unbelievable about Persis Khambatta's character... her motivation or the Indian incidental music that follows her around wherever she goes. (A rare sex scene for Poitier sees African drums take over, his own music dominating hers as they become entwined). Similarly, Prunella Gee starts out with a very sensible character but ends up being sexualised more and more as the film progresses. Fortunately it manages to pull the whole thing together with a very good series of twists at the end.
Ultimately this well packaged picture is a strong vehicle for Caine- Poitier and deserves to be more than to be a forgotten entry on both men's resumes.
Virgin Island (1958)
According to IMDb votes, this is the least-seen Sidney Poitier movie, along with 1947's Sepia Cinderella. Of course, this isn't really Poitier's picture, the actor cast as a secondary character, a Jamaican-accented island help in one of his more over-the-top performances.
The main two players are John Cassavetes and Virginia Maskell, both of whom seem to share genuine rapport and a love of improvisation. Playing two newlyweds who set up home on a deserted island, the film moves along pleasantly enough, though without real incident - it's almost 45 minutes before we learn that there is smuggling around the island, for example.
Yet for what is essentially a lightweight, incident-free movie, there is a sense that it's quite progressive for 1958: the concept of beginning independence on a small island is relatively novel (albeit one that Laurel and Hardy had bowed out on 7 years earlier), and there are some small pleas to female equality. However, the basic simplicity of the film is its charm, with an almost fairytale quality to events. Just as an example, there's no real resolution to the smuggling subplot, and the couple decide to loan the whole island to Poitier and his fiancé at the end, pretty much "just because". Despite Cassavetes inventing his own alternative to method acting, this isn't a picture that extends towards overt screen realism, or attempts to.
While entertaining for what it is, it's difficult to watch what is a somewhat dated movie without being reminded of the darker side of the two stars: Cassavetes died of liver failure before he was even sixty, whereas Maskell died from an overdose of anti-depressants before she'd even reached the age of 32.
Good-bye, My Lady (1956)
"It's a lotta dawg."
Good-bye, My Lady largely centres around just three characters for its 95 minute runtime: a boy, his uncle and their laughing (yes, laughing) dog. As a result, the film's appeal lies solely on having the audience fall in love and care for these characters, a hard ask sixty years on where the mannered style of acting is antiquated, and the rhythms of speech are sure rightly fashioned old, yes sirree bob.
The two leads insist upon their own charm, and the jaunty, syruppy music doesn't help matters, seemingly just two minutes of the same turgid theme on a loop. Cloying, dirge-like and sentimental with obvious bluntness, it's a different world where a child's main wish is to buy a shotgun and drink black coffee. Sidney Poitier looks bored in a bit part, sandwiched in between far larger roles in Blackboard Jungle/Edge of the City. Certainly, his involvement (the reason why I watched it) is a severely limited one, just three scenes amounting to less than 7 minutes of screen time.
With the constant obsessions over the stray "dawg", and what looks suspiciously like animal cruelty by today's standards, including slapping the poor thing in the face, it's a movie that's almost singular in its intent. In fact, it's hard to think of a movie so channelled towards a sole plot line; even Stallone movies have more of a developed narrative than this. Oddly for a film with such a flimsy plot, then there's even narration to move the picture along in case the audience can't grasp the complexity of a boy who tells us he loves his "dawg". Over and over.
It's of course entirely possible to enjoy films from all eras, from the present to the very dawn of cinema. But Good-bye, My Lady is not only dated in a very bad way, but with the very title giving away the ending, is also dramatically inert. It's hard to be in any way moved by a film that insists upon its own contrived emotion the way this picture does, but the current 7.3/10 rating from over 500 IMDb voters would seem to suggest that I'm in a minority.