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The First Deadly Sin (1980)
A confounding film to watch, several good ideas gone to waste.
The First Deadly Sin is a startlingly incongruent mix of 80s vigilante cop and old fashioned gumshoe thriller. It doesn't make a lot of sense, but there's some tension built up in between the general scenery-chewing of Sinatra and others. One wonders exactly what made Sinatra think this was a good idea- he appears pretty bored throughout the film, perhaps shooting for a Philip Marlowe weariness and falling very short. The overall tone of the movie emphasizes the darkness and bleak surroundings of the city, and admittedly the lighting and tone is very dramatic. Sinatra plays a senior police officer in New York who is just about to finish up the job and retire when a strange random murder appeals to him and he becomes the only cop who sees a pattern. His wife, played by Faye Dunaway, is hospitalized throughout the film and Sinatra's character visits her frequently to try and cheer her up as well as criticize the doctors for not doing enough for her.
The supporting cast fills in lots of gaps here and makes this fit in, albeit very strangely, with the NYC exploitation style that was current at the time. The great Joe Spinell shows up as a doorman, James Whitmore as the coroner, Brenda Vaccaro, Robert Weil, Eddie Jones, Victor Arnold and even a one-second appearance of Bruce Willis in his first film role. We see the horribly typical subtle racism of Jews and Latinos in New York City being displayed by stereotypes, as well as other policemen shown as haggard and corrupt, merely to contrast with Sinatra's "white knight" character. Sinatra is shown as the anachronism within the decay of the city- none of the police seem to be able to make any difference, so it takes Sinatra's illegal activities to reduce the story to a simple good vs. evil struggle. Sinatra is so bizarrely set in the story he dresses up like Bogart with a cocked Fedora and even is shown digging up an old Luger to carry in another scene. We never understand why he is so antiquated or what the point is of contrasting him in 1980 Manhattan.
Too many misshapen ideas clog this film-- for instance, why exactly is Faye Dunaway in the hospital throughout the film? There is an insistence on a religious overtone throughout the film (besides the title, there are crosses displayed everywhere)that is never explained. Anthony Zerbe phones in a quick appearance as a police captain who tries to reel in Sinatra, who is retiring in mere days from decades on the force. If it weren't bad enough that Zerbe appears needlessly drunk in this scene, his character is supposed to be a no-nonsense captain and when Sinatra asks if he can stay on the case, Zerbe basically says "sure, whatever". The two people who break down the murderer's identity are bizarrely the curator of the renowned Arms & Armor wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the wife of the murderer's first victim! Sinatra merely leaves the scene to let them do the work, appropriately showing his seemingly little concern for the plot of this film.
The First Deadly Sin is a very confusing film with more loose ends than a thread factory. Sinatra picked a very odd piece of work to make his last starring role and there must be some interesting story behind what happened with this obviously well-budgeted film. Sinatra was never an amazing actor but this is just a mess.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973)
Peter Yates at his low-key best in a New England classic.
It is essentially criminal (pun intended) that this neo-noir classic resides in the grey market, with unofficial copies being the best available way to see this film. It's 1973 and we are exposed to the criminal world in the greater Boston area during a relatively desolate autumn. Coyle, played in grand loser style by Mitchum, is running out of time while looking at an inevitable 3-5 year prison stint for bootlegging liquor (an outdated crime if there ever was one). He's an old hood, still wrapped up in doing favors and still in the know, but he's becoming a liability as he scrambles to avoid doing time. Peter Boyle is an associate of his, who runs a bar while also keeping his hands involved in the seamy side of business. Alex Rocco leads a band of bank robbers linked to Coyle who are making headlines as they take out banks left and right and Richard Jordan is a treasury agent who keeps intense links with underground figures who keep him in the know, including Boyle and Mitchum. Steven Keats plays a hotshot gun-dealer in one of his best-ever roles.
Yates makes this an intense film, slowly boiling over but never less than riveting. The locations cannot be overlooked; even if you weren't around in Boston at the time, the vibe is irrepressible. The dour, gray working class environs that the characters operate within still exist in Boston. The film has so many well-placed and subtle Boston area locations that one might easily consider the film not being as effective elsewhere. For Boston natives and residents, there is everything from a gun deal on Memorial Drive, to location shots at the Dorchester and Alewife bowling alleys, to repeated shots of Government Center, the Sharon train station, several old bars believed to be in Jamaica Plain or Downtown, Qunicy residences, South Station diner, and much more. For me, there is no greater classic Boston film from the period- the scene where the lead characters watch Bobby Orr and the Bruins play at the original Boston Garden cinches that.
Also especially notable is the attention to detail, both regionally and in plot. Although filmed in the early 70s, this film amazingly features NO black characters. This cannot be a coincidence- even though a renaissance of black actors was in effect at the time, the point is made that Boston was (is?) a hotbed of racial tension, especially in the pre-busing days. Some carefully placed comments elucidate this: KEATS- "I got some guy asking me for machine guns..." MITCHUM- "What color was he?" KEATS- "He's a nice guy.." Mentions of city districts and Coyle's expatriate Irish wife Sheila also add to the realism. Coyle is barely staying afloat in this world where no one is to be trusted. This classic noir motif works very well here, since it's quickly made obvious whose lives matter and whose don't in this almost airtight crime thriller.
The Friends Of Eddie Coyle is simply one of the best true-to-life films I've ever seen and a movie so well made it's hard to believe it's such a sleeper. Also note the excellent Dave Gruisin score which is also unreleased. One of the absolute best of the 1970s. Meanwhile in Boston today, bank robberies still occur regularly.
Now available from Amazon as a legal download, looks like no one else was eager to touch this classic for DVD release-- that's a real shame. Was also incidentally shown at Cambridge Massachusetts' Brattle Theater late 2007 in a spectacular print.
Newman's Law (1974)
A Surprise Sprung From Television.
A nearly blind rental, the George Peppard vehicle "Newman's Law" impressed me more than I'd have imagined. It's a solid cop flick from the great days of cop flicks, and takes place in Los Angeles. Interestingly, the downbeat approach to it made me think San Francisco, yet without the trolleys and hills. This is a testament to the workmanship of the film- it's not about the glitz of LA, it's about the hard life of an 15+ year veteran detective on the job, still plugging away though getting old.
The most difficult part of the film is that there is a vibe of television drama to it that try as it might, it cannot shake free of. This is the first film directed by Richard T. Heffron, who also directed the well known Peppard show "Banacek". Something about the seriousness of the characters, even though a good effort was put forward to flesh out their personages, smacks of period cop show. Not to insinuate that period cop shows were particularly bad, just think that this film has a little bit more "Kojak" than it does "CHiPs".
The cast for this film was excellent. Peppard is not to be outdone, as Newman he's merely reserved and serious, a man of principles who will not tolerate graft or corruption. He is not a racist nor is he the ham-fisted violent cop so popular in film following "The French Connection." Roger Robinson, a black actor who is admittedly new to me, is excellent as his loyal partner Garry, who we see developed far beyond the basic black/white buddy-film aesthetic. Garry has a child and a wife(the stately Marlene Clark) and a life that is shown to contrast with that of Newman. Newman is the loner and Garry has it more together. Eugene Roche is a superior of the police, Abe Vigoda plays an accurate mafioso, Victor Campos is a great new recruit flatfoot, and actor/jazz saxophonist Mel Stewart is a crime boss. As you can see, many TV actors abound in this production.
It's got a good, darker-than-usual tone to it, similar to the excellent "Busting" of the same time period. Dimly-lit scenes and Peppard's excellent styles (he wears some very slick jackets in this) give "Newman's Law" some real power. One of the better, lesser-known cop flicks of the early 70s.
Short Eyes (1977)
One of the best prison movies ever made.
Short Eyes is yet another 70's flick lost until recently in the world of obscure VHS,various licensing and grey market bootlegs. However, it is one of the best dramas of the decade and deserved the DVD re-release.
The story centers about the denizens of "The Tombs", the Men's House of Detention in Manhattan, where it was filmed. Like many other prison-centered scripts, it fleshes out the microcosmic aspect of a isolated society and provides the alternate racial existence on "the inside" (where white is the minority). The story establishes the environment inside, outlining the groups and nearly making the life seem manageable. Then a white middle-class inmate arrives and is quickly exposed by a guard as a accused child molester, or short eyes. The group at large quickly responds as we see what this society really deems offensive.
Along the way we experience religious presence, soulful expression, prison hierarchy, sexual intimidation, mental coercion, utter rage, blinding fear, confiding, alienation and displacement. In other words, the range of emotions from several characters displays to the viewer the depth and severity of how living in a world where entropy is the only constant. There is a passage in the movie where the complete ambivalence of every person becomes evident; there are no longer any allies or any semblance of trust when it is exposed that everyone will take what they want when possible. The guards are an important part of the population but there is no real opposition there- no protagonists to speak of, only a film of corruption over the cruel survivalist scene. Stirring, impassioned material.
While there are no big stars in this, an independent adaptation of Miguel Pinero's early 70's play, it still has some amazing performances. Jose Perez does a stellar job as the one prisoner who can tolerate speaking with the 'short eyes'. Prolific character actor Bruce Davison is outstanding as the conflicted and confused molester, who cannot weather this change of environment. Nathan George, a great character actor who remained busy in the 70's, is in fine form here. Joseph Carberry is the central white inmate and wears his hate and mistrust as a badge of identity. And of course, there is no forgetting the cameos by the late Curtis Mayfield and Freddy Fender. In one group scene, Fender engages in a song ("Break The Dawn") captivating the entire population, an amazing slow soulful track that is matched by the following Mayfield song, "Do Do Wap is Strong In Here". Two smoky, slow-burn tracks sung by two legends that literally soothes the savagery here. A rewindable, unforgettable classic scene.
In an extra note, superb modern Latino actor Luis Guzman appears as an extra here in his first film appearance. Look for him in the above Mayfield/Fender song sequence and in a few other scenes, sporting a blowout afro.
There is ample reason why this is often referred to as a 'prison/horror film' but its really a stark, tense drama. Coupled with the Benjamin Bratt-lead Pinero, this is one of the best ways to get a taste of the lost genius of Miguel Pinero. The DVD issue of Short Eyes features a commentary track by the director along with Leon Ichaso, director of Pinero. Although there is much left open about this masterpiece, the commentary truly adds a lot of miscellaneous info that fans like myself would appreciate. Not to be missed.
Beat Street (1984)
As a film, awful-- as a document, outstanding.
It's fine to appreciate this film through the sieve of nostalgia. Even I have a hard time viewing this film without reciting all the words- I've seen it many many times. But the important thing to note here is that while Harry Belafonte made a noble effort to shape a story out of the Bronx's greatest cultural export, it's only successful half of the time. The result is a film that garners lots of groaning through scenes while waiting for the 'good parts'. Rae Dawn Chong is flimsy and ineffective as usual, in the role of the dance school instructor who 'discovers' Lee and KK. The ensuing romance that KK and Tracy have is terribly trite and makes for sleepy viewing. Likewise the sopping wet story of Ramon and his girlfriend, who have a child and disapproving parents. Heavy handed and poorly acted to boot- even for the time period. All the graffiti was designed by stage painters, and looks like it- distant and plastic. This is a depiction of a corny world indeed.
What Beat Street is notable for, is managing to compile many notable music artists and b-boys/b-girls in performance. The Rock Steady and NY Breakers footage, the Us Girls group assembled for this film, Busy Bee, Melle Mel and the Furious Five, Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force, Tina B., Brenda Starr, Treacherous Three and Doug E. Fresh- there's loads of it which greatly outweighs the mindless fluff of the so-called plot. The soundtrack (co-produced by Arthur Baker of "Planet Rock" fame) is extremely notable as well. It was originally sold in 2 volumes, and while each record has several watery ballads, the classic songs like "Frantic Situation", "Son of Beat Street", "Santa's Rap" and "Battle Cry" are very much worth the purchase.
If you're like me and miss 'old New York' (it was only 20 or so years ago but NY is totally different) it's really great to see painted trains, old street scenes and the Roxy. Beat Street has been contrasted to Wild Style many times, especially with the scorn of Beat Street being the Hollywood retread of Wild Style's gritty budgeted reality. This might be the case, but it would seem that Beat Street has a better focus on b-boying (breakdance) whereas Wild Style's actual graffiti by famed writers remains the strong point of that film. There's a hokey wholesomeness present in Beat Street that just isn't realistic. Regardless, Beat Street is certainly worth viewing- particularly when it pops up on TV- but be prepared for some stale, hackneyed drama strewn into the great music and killer scenes.
"Beat Street Breakdown--- RUAHHH!!!"
Good heist story, worth searching out.
Firstly, it is wrong to associate this alongside any of the Shaft series. The VHS reissue (in EP mode) is evidently retitled to fortify it on the retail shelves. Roundtree is entirely cast different, and fans of Shaft will be disappointed that he doesn't even wear a mustache in the film. Rather, "Diamonds" is one of those action/caper films that seem to fit very comfortably in the 70's. It's hardly jaw-dropping material, but Golan (of the Cannon film group) invested well into this accurately sketched story.
The location work on "Diamonds" is superb and justly highlighted. The story starts in Europe but is mostly in the streets, neighborhoods and buildings of Israel, which is somewhat unusual for an "exotic" locale. There's plenty of local flavor injected into the story, and the location plays a big part in the tension of the plot- Israeli police using their own means to track down an international thief and an ominous London businessman. Roundtree is superb, still shining in the Shaft afterglow and Shaw is as consistent as ever (even in the iffy double-casting job). Unfortunately, the women do not fare so well- Barbara Hershey (as Barbara Seagull) whines at Roundtree's character throughout half the film about some unclear relationship issues. And Shelly Winters is...... uhhhhh, well, Shelly Winters as she portrays a lukewarm bit of comedic relief. She plays a stereotype American Jewish woman visiting Israel on a tour to buy diamonds. A peripheral character at best, it could be said that her character exists merely to parody the common Israeli/American tourist. Nonetheless, the action and details of this thriller are the fenceposts here and they hold together a remarkably good 70's flick. The soundtrack, which might at times see more recognition than the film, is composed by cult composer Roy Budd (Get Carter, Stone Killer, etc) and The Three Degrees. It too has been reissued. Overall, it's a nice surprise and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys 70's action cinema or borderline Black action.
Turk 182! (1985)
A classic piece of NYC trash (potential spoiler!)
OK, I'll have you know that I own a copy of this film so don't think I hate it viciously. It's not a bad story, and Hutton and Urich do well at their heavy New York accents. Actually, if there's one thing that makes the story, it's the thick flavor of 80's NY that runs through it. Some notable bit characters (notably Dick O'Neil) do great jobs as curmudgeons, and Culp and Boyle are completely evil. However, Steven Keats COMPLETELY blows it as a total NY buffoon stereotype- lines like "Dis is bee-yoo-tee-fulll", and "Dis is yoo-ge (huge) wit a capital U!" don't make him much more than a cartoon. Kim Cattrall's acting is pretty flimsy to boot. The ending is absurd beyond words- all of a sudden the mayor and all the cops revert their anger towards him and all cheer on Turk in a complete Hollywood photo finish. Please.
For me, the draw here is pretty much linked to the graffiti aspect of the movie. The sequence where Hutton sandblasts the subway train is fun stuff, as well as the over-the-top feats with the scoreboard, the mounted police horse, etc. But it's important to note, especially in the time period, that no such graffiti writer in New York could avoid massive and brutal prosecution. The story of NY writer Smith has so many parallels to this story it's hard to tell which came first- Smith's late brother Sane has even gone by Sane 182 in homage to the film. Smith painted his name on the side of the Brooklyn Bridge and not only made headlines, he came under the city's first million-dollar lawsuit. Turk 182 effectively makes the mayor look demonic, but only in a silly comic book way. There are some real heroes with real stories to tell from those days; maybe one day a realistic portrayal will come down the pike when people are ready to see both sides of that story.
Better than you might think.
I have to come out and say, I disagree with the previous comment. The reason that I'm penning this is not to stomp on someone else's opinion, but rather to expose the pros that may be ignored. This video is pretty unique. (Might have some spoilers, but this video does not have a plot situation to spoil.)
This is a motivational video for children wherein Mr.T explores some of the mores that he believes in. They range from classical moral staples to bizarre acts of individuality. But the overall effect is pretty remarkable- this could be easily relegated to the so-bad-it's-good pile, or considered just an extremely odd offering. But if you grew up with Mr. T, it could just be a document of the man's righteousness. A video like this probably wouldn't be made these days, but what a trip back. This tape features Mr. T attempting to breakdance, New Edition on peer pressure, Mr. T's video for the pseudo-electro-rap song "Treat Your Mother Right", ghostwriting by Ice T and two appearances of the word "absoludicrous".
"Be Somebody.." is pretty tough to track down, and was originally referred to me by someone who bought their copy from a video store (where no one else rented it). If you come across this, and you don't consider Mr. T merely a ridiculous early-80's effigy, it's worth a viewing. They just don't make videos like this anymore!
She Devils in Chains (1976)
Decently budgeted 70's martial arts.
Ebony Ivory And Jade is a ok film for fans of martial arts flicks, but if you're into dirty 70's b-movies, check yourself. The recent reissue on VHS and DVD barely mentions it in the liner notes, but this is a PG film. Considering the content of most 70's films, as well as the fact that this is considered a blax/sexploitation film, it's as bland as possible. The martial arts work is certainly impressive, and there's plenty of it. But it seems that the only reason this wasn't G rated, is because of the cartoonish violence.
I'm certainly biased towards quality period black action, with the likes of Pam Grier, Fred Williamson, Antonio Fargas, Rudy Ray Moore, Isaac Hayes, and so on. The grit and scintillation of those films makes me wanting more here. This movie was filmed in the Phillipines, which instantly puts it in league with many women-in-prison flicks (Big Doll House, Big Bird Cage, Black Mama White Mama, etc).
Whereas many of the films of the time focus upon sex and drugs, it's clear that the scenery and location of this film mattered to the people who made it. There are some unusual (for the genre) shots and an overall usage of the locale as much as possible. From jungle shots, to plains and shallow waterways, the feel here is more expansive than many backlot productions.
It's not that it's a bad flick, but it's a pretty harmless one. Fans of 70's film should know that the 'edge' that runs through many 70's b-flicks is missing here.
Murph the Surf (1975)
Decent AIP heist flick, well shot flimsy trash.
This film was not easy to find, and compounded with the 3 different titles it had, it basically destined itself to obscurity. "Murph The Surf" does not exactly scream, marquee mangetism. This film manages to wedge its greasy fingers into a few different pies. It bounces from true story mystique to cheap TV drama, and then tries to inject flawed interpersonal relationships into the mix. The lack of story cohesion goes a long way to confuse and disinterest the viewer.
The film is surprisingly well shot, and has a budget that's not evident in other AIP films. The production team went a long way to prove that these two playboys are brazen beyond belief. But the acting ranges between wooden and soap-opera emoting. The story makes these characters impossible to believe; nobody is bashful about the fact that they're jewel thieves, and the life they live only barely scrapes the bedrock of reality. The scene where Murph starts to have second thoughts in the museum is probably the deepest any character in the film gets. It seems fair that the idea was to show how soulless the central characters lives were, however without some subtlety it merely comes off cold. In other words, boring.
There's a pretty good boat chase in the film, and a few worthwhile scenes where your interest is almost heightened, but other than that it's unfortunate and hard to watch.
It's a disposable 70's heist movie, eclipsed by many better ones. I guess there's a reason why this stuff only remains on late-nite pay TV.