Monday, July 23, 2012


NIGHT WIND, the latest film from producer Felix Farmer (Richard Mulligan) has flopped. Badly. As an array of Hollywood players rally to recover their losses, Felix descends into suicidal gloom. But when Felix falls (literally) into an orgy that is happening in his home, he is revitalized by an epiphany: NIGHT WIND can be saved with the inclusion of graphic sex scenes. Now if he can convince his wife/leading lady/squeaky clean icon Sally Miles (Julie Andrews) to bare her breasts for it...

This film was a staple in the early days of HBO, and 11-year-old me watched it many, many times. It had achieved some notoriety as "that movie where we see Julie Andrews' breasts" which certainly wasn't lost on me, but as a nascent cinephile there was much to enjoy here. I was starting to understand what moviemakers did, and so I was always going to be interested in a movie ABOUT moviemaking. Especially when the moviemaker hero at its center was as crazy and fun to watch as Mulligan was.

Revisiting it now, for the first time in decades (thanks, Warner Archive), I wonder if I took the film's anger to heart. It's very much a vent (and a pointed stick) from writer/director Blake Edwards, and is both charged with wish fulfillment and fuelled by the kind of spite and specificity that only an insider could bring to bear. Though I did eventually get a degree in theatre and have since pursued storytelling in one way or another, I never, ever had any desire to make it big in Hollywood, and this film illustrates many of the reasons why. (The final scene, in which many of the film's players continue to network during a funeral, is insanely true to my recent experiences of Hollywood.)

But it's interesting as a transition from one decade to the next, evident mainly, but not solely, in its two takes on NIGHT WIND's dream sequence. The film is populated with veteran actors, many of them old hands (and Edwards mainstays) whom one suspects know exactly what real-life counterparts they're playing (Mulligan is clearly an id-unleashed stand-in for Edwards, and the parallels between Andrews and Miles are clear; Robert Vaughn recently admitted that his ruthless exec was modeled on Robert Evans). Among these veterans are young faces who would go on to fame later in the decade (I recognized Joe Penny, didn't recognize Roseanna Arquette, didn't even see Corbin Bernsen). As (charmingly gently) 80s-raunchy as the action often gets, there's a refreshing and intriguing old-school vibe to the thing, from Henry Mancini's score to the joyous third-act counterattack perpetrated by these three Musketeers:

But the transitions spoken of in this film carried to real life. William Holden (above left) died shortly after the film was completed. Roberts Preston (center) and Webber (right) continued to work (quite visibly in Preston's case, in VICTOR/VICTORIA and THE LAST STARFIGHTER), but neither of them would survive the decade. Until I watched the film recently my abiding memory of the film was always just these three guys sitting around, getting lit with Sinatra on the jukebox, rallying for one final hurrah. Even now they stand together as the film's conscience, and collectively make its most joyfully indelible impression. Here's to the old school.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Stacie Ponder has kickstarted back up the Final Girl Film Club, and asked us all to offer some words on Maniac, the notorious and much-maligned 1980s grindhouse opus. Made for about half a million dollars, which must have felt like a fortune to filmmaker William Lustig, the film concerns the life and lusts of Frank Zito (co-scenarist Joe Spinell), a lonely man tormented by visions of his abusive mother into kidnapping and scalping young women.

Though New York in the late 1970s was a petri dish for many forms of American culture, a certain patina of danger remained. Abandoned at one time by federal authorities, the city battled hard for survival even as lawlessness threatened to overtake it. This sense of violence informs MANIAC, including one of its most notorious scenes in which a man (makeup/FX artist Tom Savini) is decapitated by a shotgun blast (which had to have been inspired by the Son of Sam slayings that rocked the city in the 70s). But perhaps the most perverse aspect of the film, considering its influences and pedigree, is its humanity. Spinell brings a palpable vulnerability to Frank - there is a profound sense of the damage he has suffered, and a very strong sense that this is simply a man who can not stop himself. Spinell captures this aspect of Frank's character as vividly as his violence, placing him firmly along other vulnerable film psychos as Norman Bates and Mark Lewis.

Also juicing the humanity of the film is a startlingly warm performance by Caroline Munro as Anna, a fashion photographer who finds herself drawn to Frank. Frank and Anna are an odd couple, to be sure, but Munro's warmth and acceptance is so beautifully established that we just buy it. She brings his humanity out more clearly than any other character in the film - she could be the break that Frank has needed all his life, and their scenes together win us over. Munro's on-screen grace carried off-stage, as we can see in this wonderful interview where she evenly, even warmly fields some truly damn-fool questions and comments from East Coast newsfolk who've already made up their little minds about the film.