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Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
One of the great feel-good movies of the 1970s
Former Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham makes his directorial debut with "Smokey and the Bandit", a movie that almost makes you want to jump in a time machine and relive 1970s Americana all over again.
Needham not only directed but wrote the screenplay for this flick about a well renown diesel truck driver named Bo Darville, played by Burt Reynolds. Bo, or as he is better known by his CB radio handle, "Bandit", accepts a bet that he can make a delivery of Coors beer, traveling from Atlanta, Georgia to Texarkana, Texas and back, all in twenty-eight hours or less. Apparently, distributing the Coors brew east of the Texas state line is considered illegal.
The Bandit enlists the help of his truck-driving buddy, Cledus Snow (A.K.A. the "Snowman"). The Snowman (played so energetically by Jerry Reed) is to drive Bandit's eighteen-wheeler while the Bandit tags along in a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The Bandit will use his sleek and nimble Trans Am as a "blocker", distracting the numerous highway patrolmen (or "smokeys") along the route so Snowman can slip through any speed traps or checkpoints that might jeopardize the timely delivery of Coors.
This setup makes for plenty of inevitable car chases along the way, with Bandit demonstrating his driving prowess behind the wheel, all the while leaving the smokeys behind in clouds of dust.
As Bandit and Snowman are returning to Atlanta with their beer shipment, Bandit picks up a hitchhiker named Carrie (Sally Field), a young, pretty bride on the run who, at the last minute, got cold feet at her wedding ceremony. Carrie is being pursued by Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), whose dimwitted son was the very groom left standing at the alter by Carrie. Now, Bandit has two objectives: ensure Snowman and the cargo of beer make it safely to Atlanta, and escape the wrath of the pot-bellied redneck Sheriff Justice.
There's really some outstanding performances to be had here. Jackie Gleason practically steals the show as the southern lawman vowing with his last breath to track down his man. Mr. Gleason plays Sheriff Justice with a comic genius right down to the southern drawl and demeanor that totally befits the part. Jerry Reed is also a joy to watch with his good ol' country boy personality, always coming up with a quip. Reed also provides a few tunes for the soundtrack, most notably "East Bound and Down", a hit record on the country charts in 1977. Burt Reynolds plays Bandit with a likable charm, flashing his mischievous smile for all the ladies to swoon at.
"Smokey and the Bandit" really serves as a great example of 1970s life in America. That undeniable carefree "freedom" feeling abounds on the screen here. Unlike other films, you don't have to get so wrapped up in the plot. Just sit back and watch the fun that everybody's having. The great mix of comedy and action helped to propel this film to be one of the top grossing blockbusters of 1977.
You'll also find plenty of 70s fads demonstrated here, most notably the never-ending CB radio lingo that truckers use to converse with over the air. There's also the big hair-dos, the polyester shirts and the bell bottom pants. The folks at General Motors had to have been pleased with the movie's success, as sales of Trans Ams in the company's Pontiac division skyrocketed after getting favorable exposure in the film.
If you should ever get a chance to see "Smokey and the Bandit", try to view the original unedited print, now available on DVD. The version released for TV broadcast is heavily edited for content, most notably dubbing over Jackie Gleason's continuous cursing and swearing in the Sheriff Justice character. The dialog just doesn't have the same impact when watered down to a "G" rating.
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
Classic Don Knotts film showcasing classic Don Knotts shtick
I think we can all remember Don Knotts as that guy who always made us laugh by getting the daylights scared out of him. All someone would have to do is sneak up behind him, tap him on the shoulder and say "boo!", and Knotts would go into his bug-eyed, hair-standing-on-end routine of a guy that acts like he'd just seen a ghost. Don made a living out of playing such a character as Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show". An unlikely hero, Barney Fife was the kind of guy you would least expect to hold the job of a deputy sheriff. Even though Fife was yellow on the inside, he still somehow managed to come out on top at the end of each episode.
As Don Knotts ended his stint on the Griffith show after five years, he signed on with Universal Studios to go into the movie business. He'd take the cowardly, scaredy-cat persona with him, though. His first outing with Universal, "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken", showcased that same weakling quality that helped make Knotts a star.
Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a typesetter working in the basement of a small-town newspaper. Luther has dreams of becoming an ace newspaper reporter someday, but he can never seem to come across that big scoop that will get him out of his lowly position in the basement.
Then one day, the newspaper's editor/owner comes to Luther with what could be Luther's big break! To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of a horrendous murder/suicide, Luther is asked to spend the night in the deserted mansion where the horrific crime took place. The old house is said to be haunted by the ghost of a Mr. Simmons, who allegedly murdered his wife in a fit of jealous rage and then, in turn, leapt to his own death by jumping from the top floor of the mansion. Luther is to arrive at the house just before midnight and make note of any supernatural phenomena that he witnesses during his stay. After Luther sees what he thinks is the evil spirit of Mr. Simmons wreaking havoc about the dilapidated domicile, he returns to report his terrifying experience to his boss. Luther becomes an instant celebrity when his story of horror is published in the morning paper, and the old Simmons place becomes the hottest tourist attraction in town.
The movie is certainly a fine piece of family fare, with Knotts almost creating the Barney Fife character all over again in Luther Heggs. The initial seed of the story provides for the perfect vehicle for Knotts to perform his "Mr. Chicken" guise.
The film overall, though, seems to lack a strong enough, believable storyline. The plot almost seems to be a carbon copy straight from an episode of "Scooby Doo, Where are You?" Sure, it's fun to see Don Knotts acting as if he's about to jump out of his skin, but that's about the only main attraction in "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken". When the story concludes, and the real villain is revealed, you might find yourself scratching your head in puzzlement. There are a few holes left unfilled and loose threads left hanging when the mystery is solved, but because of the fine cast and production, the inconsistencies can be easily overlooked.
The best moments in the movie, of course, are during Luther Heggs's visits to the spooky Simmons mansion. There genuinely are some creepy moments during the haunted house scenes, highlighted by Vic Mizzy's musical score. Mizzy (who wrote "The Addams Family" theme) even provides the bone-chilling organ music emanating from the old pipe organ inside the ghostly mansion.
There's one or two familiar faces working with Don Knotts here. Dick Sargent (the second Darrin on "Bewitched") plays Luther's boss. A couple of fellow "Andy Griffith Show" cohorts show up as well. There's Hal Smith (Otis on the Griffith show) playing (what else?) the local drunk. Also imported straight from Mayberry is Hope Summers and long-time favorite Burt Mustin. Glamorous actress and onetime Playboy model Joan Staley portrays Knott's love interest, Alma, but there's really not much on-screen chemistry between the two. The budding romance between Luther and Alma just doesn't seem very convincing.
But don't let the faults in this film make you turn away from it. "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken" spotlights one of the greatest comedic actors of all time. Fans of Don Knotts will not be disappointed as Knotts turns in a fine, energetic performance that only Don Knotts could do.
Charley Varrick (1973)
Overlooked crime/action drama of the 1970s
Walter Matthau stars as "Charley Varrick", the title character of director Don Siegel's film about a stunt pilot-turned-bank robber who finds himself in hot water after stealing roughly $750,000 from the mafia.
Matthau's Varrick orchestrates the hold-up of a small town bank in rural New Mexico. When Varrick and his only surviving co-conspirator return to their hideout to count the loot they stole, they discover they came away with a lot more than they had originally planned. Varrick immediately begins to worry that their unexpected good fortune is in reality cash receipts from the various operations of organized crime. We soon find that Varrick is correct in connecting the money to the mob, and it doesn't take long before a professional hit man (Joe Don Baker of "Walking Tall") is hired to track down Charley Varrick and the missing money.
There are several familiar faces to watch out for in this fun-to-watch story. Andy Robinson (Clint Eastwood's sniper foe in "Dirty Harry") is Varrick's ever greedy partner in crime. Venerable character actor William Schallert plays the local town sheriff. John Vernon (the college dean in "Animal House") is the dastardly bank president who employs contract killer Mr. Molly (Joe Don Baker) to hunt down Varrick. Also, keep an eye out for Norman Fell (Mr. Roper on "Three's Company") as Mr. Garfinkel, the district attorney. Veteran music composer Lalo Schifrin provides the musical score.
Universal studios failed to give this excellent film justice when it was finally released on DVD. There are no chapter selection menus to speak of, no added extras such as theatrical trailers or commentary tracks, and no widescreen presentation (although there is some dispute as to whether this film was actually shot in the 1:1.33 ratio). However, fans of this movie should be grateful to get an uncut, unedited version of this incredible action thriller on home video.
The Flim-Flam Man (1967)
Let's have a DVD release!
This film has long been one of my favorites, and I think it's just a crime that this wonderful movie is not on DVD yet! I mean come on, this movie was no small time production. It boasted a big name, George C. Scott, as well as a few other well-known supporting players such as Harry Morgan (Col. Potter on "M*A*S*H"), Strother Martin ("What we got here is failure to communicate" from "Cool Hand Luke"), Jack Albertson ("Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Chico and the Man"), and Slim Pickens (who also appeared with Scott in "Dr. Stragelove").
The story is quite amusing and wonderfully crafted: A slick con man way up in his years takes a young army deserter under his wing to teach him the tricks of the confidence game. The young man-gone-AWOL at first is taken in by how easy it is to sucker people out of their belongings by having the right props and a perfectly rehearsed act. But he begins to have doubts about the illegal and dishonest ways of his aging con artist mentor and decides that a life on the run is just not for him.
All in all, the film is an incredible light-hearted comedy/adventure complimented by a great musical score by Jerry Goldsmith.
As for a DVD release, I wouldn't even complain if the disc had no special features on it (commentary tracks, theatrical trailer, etc.). Just a widescreen presentation for 16:9 televisions would be plenty enough for me. I hope when 20th Century Fox looks through their film vaults for potential DVD releases that they don't overlook this one!
One of my favorites
If there is any one film that is long overdue to be released on DVD, this is it! "Duel" is a spectacular, suspenseful, on-the-edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. The movie itself has a very simple plot: a business man traveling cross-country by car is terrorized by an unseen truck driver who seems to have a really bad case of road rage built up inside him. Had this made-for-TV gem been directed by anyone other than Steven Spielberg, it probably would have been quickly forgotten, but in the hands of Spielberg, it truly shines. Take note of the unusual camera angles and how Dennis Weaver's point of view as the pursued motorist is used to make the viewer feel the fear that Weaver's character is feeling. This film is currently not available on DVD but can be found on VHS. Let's hope Universal will stop stalling on the DVD release!