Monday, November 13, 2017

LE JUMEAU (THE TWIN) ON BLU-RAY

Last May, the Museum of the Moving Image hosted “Crime Scenes,” a series focusing on the film adaptations and screenplays of legendary novelist Donald E. Westlake. The weekend of screenings was organized by Levi Stahl, editor of the terrific Westlake collection The Getaway Car, and included John Boorman’s POINT BLANK, the Robert Redford caper comedy THE HOT ROCK and, of course, THE GRIFTERS, for which Westlake earned an Oscar nomination. We attended the opening night of the festival (POINT BLANK) and found the post-screening discussion featuring Stahl, Abby Westlake, Lawrence Block and Luc Sante, to be informative and entertaining.

Although the discussion focused partly on European translations of Westlake’s stories, the film series included only one European adaptation: MADE IN U.S.A., a bizarre Marxist re-imagining of The Jugger directed by Jean-Luc Godard. Later French-language Westlake films like MISE À SAC, LE JUMEAU, ORDO, and Costa-Gavras’s critically praised LE COUPERET were not included, but they are strong efforts and mostly successful at capturing the author's style. Sadly, those films have eluded American viewers thanks to spotty or non-existent distribution.


In 1984, director Yves Robert re-teamed with Pierre Richard, the star of his hit comedies THE TALL BLOND MAN WITH ONE BLACK SHOE and its sequel, for LE JUMEAU (THE TWIN), based on Westlake’s 1976 novel Two Much! Never officially released to the U.S., LE JUMEAU only recently became available with English subtitles in a beautiful-looking transfer available on a region-free Blu-Ray through Amazon France.

Richard plays Matthias Duval, the womanizing, debt-ridden owner of an adult greeting card business, who invents a brother to woo identical twin heiresses (played by English twins Carey and Camilla More, the same year as their appearance in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER). After Matthias seduces Liz Kerner, he slicks his hair back and dons a pair of glasses to become Matthieu Duval, Matthias’s identical twin brother and suitor of Liz’s sister Betty.

When Matthias finds himself engaged to Liz and Betty as part of an inheritance scheme, he’s soon running back and forth between offices and bedrooms, juggling identities in farcical fashion while the Kerners’ cadaverous attorney Ernest Volpinex (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) launches an investigation into the Duval siblings.

The film is remarkably faithful to Westlake’s novel and even uses a few of the tasteless (and often hilarious) greeting card messages. Richard, a deft comic actor, skillfully manages physical humor and projects the sleaziness and dishonesty of his character with surprising charm. Although the final, tonally jarring plot twists of the novel have been omitted -- Westlake purists may object -- director Robert finds an appropriately noir-ish atmosphere and builds tension, particularly in a dazzling sequence in which Matthias flees from a burning house.

Two Much! was adapted again in 1996 as a mostly forgettable comedy (starring Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah) that barely resembles the source material.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

NOVELIZED: A LOOK BACK AT EXTREME PREJUDICE, PART 1

By Phil Poggiali

SPOILER WARNING!

Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year is EXTREME PREJUDICE, a fast-paced and violent modern western in director Walter Hill’s inimitable style. The film’s convoluted script alternates an archetypical conflict between two childhood friends, one a straight arrow Texas Ranger and the other a drug lord and rogue DEA informer, and a special-ops unit, officially classified as dead, who have been ordered by the CIA (they think) to stage a bank robbery. When the two sets of characters finally lock horns in a Mexican village, Hill cuts loose for a brilliantly staged homage to the bullet-ridden finale of THE WILD BUNCH.

EXTREME PREJUDICE approaches its shopworn material with a much-needed sense of humor. As Hill told Irish Times journalist Michael Dwyer in 1989, “I don't think it was understood how much genre parodying was involved in that picture. It rather mystified a lot of American critics….” The tongue-in-cheek tone can be felt in the performances (particularly from the late Powers Boothe, who is surprisingly disarming and funny as the villain) and Hill’s tendency to poke fun at genre conventions -- for example, in the repeated interruptions of a pistol duel near the film's climax.


The material was not always treated with humor, originating in a cynical and downbeat 1976 spec script by John Milius. Milius’s work, a post-Vietnam conspiracy thriller, focused on a Special Forces team subverting a Texas city to divert attention from their real mission, the extermination of North Korean-trained Mexican terrorists just over the border. (Milius would use a few of the ideas from that script for RED DAWN.) By the time the film went into production in 1986, the story had gone through at least four other writers, including Hollywood veterans Harry Kleiner (BULLITT) and an uncredited Lukas Heller (THE DIRTY DOZEN). Though updated to reflect the U.S. government’s War on Drugs, the script was tailored to Hill’s more visceral and less political filmmaking sensibilities.

Carolco Pictures, still hot off the success of the Rambo films, produced EXTREME PREJUDICE for distribution by TriStar. The studio hired fledgling screenwriters Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson to develop the novelization. According to the book’s acknowledgments, Dobbins and Slawson were present on location and had considerable access to the filmmakers and most of the actors, who provided “research and insight” into their characters to the two authors. At 271 pages, the book is unusually long for the novelization of a 96-minute movie, but it is a well-crafted translation of the shooting script with additional material clarifying character motivations and smoothing out the rougher edges of the story.

Dobbins and Slawson patterned their work on the final drafts by Deric Washburn (THE DEER HUNTER) but made some interesting structural changes. Although the script and film begin with the Dead List commandos meeting at an airport before getting their orders from corrupt Major Paul Hackett (Michael Ironside), that scene occurs roughly a third of the way through the novel as a flashback. Instead, the opening chapter focuses on Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (Nick Nolte) and Sheriff Hank Pearson (Rip Torn) as they bust into a crowded bar in the border town of Benrey to apprehend drug runner T.C. Luke, a fatal encounter that sets off the script’s many complications. By doing this, the authors correctly position Jack as the focal character while creating more of a mystery around the soldiers.


Although Nick Nolte portrayed Jack Benteen as a terse, stoic, and incorruptible western hero, in the book he is more self-aware and psychologically complex. His father and grandfather both having been Texas Rangers, Jack followed in their footsteps out of tradition but suffers enormous stress from his pursuit of criminals and the endless problem of the narcotics trade, as well as the knowledge that he’ll have to confront and probably kill his friend, drug lord Cash Bailey (Boothe). The weight of “unwanted family ties” appears as a recurring dream in which Jack slowly dies from a hanging noose. Compounding the stress is his relationship with nightclub singer Sarita (Maria Conchita Alonso) and Sarita’s romantic history with his friend. The novelization does a better job of explaining Jack and Sarita’s tumultuous relationship, including their cultural differences, and why Sarita leaves Jack for Cash.


Milius’s original screenplay presented a nightmare scenario in which the military rolls into a small Texas city and takes away the rights of its citizens, imprisoning anyone who fails to comply. Although the film never follows that story thread, in the novelization Jack expresses concern about the federal government employing the military for drug enforcement, fearing uncontrollable violence and the loss of civil liberties -- both of which occur as a result of military intervention in Milius’s script. In a sequence that does not originate in the shooting script or film, Jack attends Hank’s funeral (Hank is killed in a shootout with Cash’s drug runners) and, at the reception, he argues with the sheriff's relatives about the national ID card as a method of curbing illegal immigration, believing the private information would be abused by the government.

The authors provide back story on Cash and his short-lived deal with the DEA, his move into drugs and weapons trafficking, and the slow moral rot of his psyche, but they also suggest disturbing similarities between the villain and hero. During their first meeting in the film, Cash reminds Jack of a mutual sexual encounter with a girl on prom night. In the novelization, it is revealed that the girl submitted to them after ingesting spiked punch and a Quaalude and could not even tell the two boys apart during sex. As Jack carelessly recalls, “It wasn’t [his] style these days, but that was his first time and he was eager to take advantage wherever that advantage lay.”

As we learn in the film, the Dead List soldiers tasked with pulling off the bank heist in Benrey have been manipulated by their Special Forces superior, Hackett. Unbeknownst to his men, Hackett has been selling munitions to Cash, and he wants to get his hands on $10 million of Cash’s money and documents from a safety deposit box that link him to the drug lord. In the novel, Dobbins and Slawson detail Hackett’s recruitment of his men by visiting a military command center and dispatching orders under the guise of a classified mission for the CIA.


Surprisingly, the novelization excludes the character of Duncan Stark, first described in Deric Washburn’s script as a “model conservative Washington bureaucrat” and actually a corrupt DEA agent in cahoots with Hackett to steal Cash’s money. In the shooting script, Stark appears in only two scenes: at the airport meeting between Hackett and the soldiers, where he is introduced to the men as a CIA agent, and in a scene following the bank robbery, in which he and Hackett meet at a deserted adobe church and destroy the incriminating documents -- predictably, Hackett kills Stark to get his share of the money. Michael Ironside told Will Harris of The AV Club that these scenes were filmed with Andrew Robinson (DIRTY HARRY, HELLRAISER) as Stark, but Hill discarded the footage during post-production.

With the expansion of this material in prose form, the commandos gain personality and back story. Sgt. Declan Coker (Matt Mulhern) has mixed feelings about his anonymity but prefers it to the rigidly “familial atmosphere” of his upbringing; Sgt. Charles Biddle (Larry B. Scott) is deeply skeptical of authority based on the country’s history of racially discriminatory legislation; gluttonous Sgt. Buck Atwater (William Forsythe) was inspired to join the military after seeing Audie Murphy in the film TO HELL AND BACK; and Sgt. Luther Fry (Dan Tullis, Jr.) signed up to be "zombie personnel" so his children would receive his death benefits. Another detail not included in the film: Fry and Atwater first met in the Phoenix Program, a Vietnam counterinsurgency operation that included among its military Fred Rexer, Jr., who is given story credit in the film along with Milius (more on their relationship in Part 2 of this blog series).


Meanwhile, Sgt. Larry McRose (Clancy Brown) misses the freedom to have a drink in a bar because of his Dead List status, and runs out of a coffee shop after mistaking one of the customers for a former girlfriend. McRose’s panicked flight seems to be a variation on a scene from Milius’s script, in which the Biddle character is recognized in a bar by a girlfriend who believed he had died in Vietnam; Biddle has to be dismissed from the mission when the woman notifies the police.

The two authors demonstrate skill not only with character moments but also action scenes. Although the final shootout –- in which the “zombie” unit turns on the traitorous Hackett and both the commandos and Jack have to contend with Cash’s private army -- devolves into mayhem, Dobbins and Slawson are able to create tension and coherence while also making the action beats distinctive from the relevant passages in Washburn's shooting script.

Considering their excellent work on EXTREME PREJUDICE, it was disappointing to learn that Dobbins and Slawson never wrote another novelization. Furthermore, their screenwriting career may have ended prematurely because of a legal battle with Carolco. The following appeared in a December 1990 issue of Spy magazine:

Richard Dobbins and Evan Slawson v. Carolco Pictures, Sylvester Stallone, et al. – The plaintiffs say that in 1985, “with the consent, permission and request by defendants,” they wrote a treatment, Rambo: The Holy War, with Rambo at the heart of the Soviet-Afghan conflict. The treatment was well received by the producers and went through several rewrites, but the plaintiffs say they were eventually cut off without compensation or credit. They claim the final screenplay [for the film RAMBO III], credited to Stallone and Sheldon Lettich, looks a lot like their treatment. The case is in litigation.


COMING SOON: Our series continues with a critique of John Milius's EXTREME PREJUDICE screenplay!

Friday, May 26, 2017

James Bond in Find Your Fate

The James Bond Find Your Fate books were published in the U.S. and Canada in 1985. Marketed to young readers, the books used a similar format to the popular Choose Your Own Adventure series, which were essentially game books with multiple story threads and possible endings.


Parachute Press, a Manhattan-based book packaging company established by Jane Stine and Joan Waricha, created the Find Your Fate series for the Random House imprint Ballantine Books. The first ten books focused on Indiana Jones, but for #11-14 Danjaq commissioned Random House to feature Bond as a tie-in to A VIEW TO A KILL.

The books were outlined and edited by Stine and Waricha and authored by R.L. Stine (Jane’s husband, who penned the first book, Win, Place, or Die), Barbara & Scott Siegel (Strike It Deadly), Jean M. Favors (Programmed for Danger), and Steven Otfinoski (Barracuda Run).

Random House hired Cliff Spohn to design the covers and interior illustrations. Spohn got the job after his painting of Roger Moore, eventually used as the cover of Strike It Deadly, met the late actor’s approval.


The Projector’s Philip Poggiali interviewed Spohn, Otfinoski, and Jane Stine for an article on the books that appeared in MI6 Confidential #36. To order a copy of the issue, go here.

Cliff Spohn's artwork, including the Bond cover paintings, can be purchased here.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“THEY STILL HAVE PRISONERS”: A REVIEW OF INVASION

by Phil Poggiali

SPOILER WARNING!

Late at night a rural English hospital receives an unusual patient who has been struck down by an automobile. The patient is rubber-suited, has an unidentifiable blood type, and claims to have crash-landed on Earth while pursuing an escaped prisoner from the planet Lystria. An oppressive heat settles over the grounds, the phone lines are cut off, and a physician, Dr. Mike Vernon (Edward Judd), theorizes that the high temperature has been caused by a force field surrounding the hospital, created to keep the patient’s unseen convict trapped. Vernon and a hospital administrator bicker over whether to leave, and when the administrator attempts to do so he crashes his car into an invisible barrier and is killed instantly.

INVASION, a 1965 British production directed by Alan Bridges, is a sci-fi thriller about confinement, literally and figuratively. Even before the hospital has been besieged by extraterrestrials, the humans seem trapped, whether in disabled or deteriorating physical conditions (the film opens with the image of a child in an iron lung), or in occupations and relationships that leave them unsatisfied – from the cynical, overworked doctors to the bored army soldiers to the philandering husband who delivers the injured alien to the hospital. An invisible force field becomes a metaphor for the frustrations of its central characters.

To emphasize this sense of confinement, Bridges draws attention to the cinematic frame. In one unusually lengthy shot, he foregrounds a minor military character so that the actor seems to become part of the audience, both character and viewer observing two other people as they inspect the Lystrian crash site.



The film’s self-consciousness extends to frequent shots of actors looking or staring into the camera.







Later, after the hospital administrator smashes into the force field and is ejected through his car windshield, Vernon, colleague Dr. Claire Harland (Valerie Gearon), and Major Muncaster (Barrie Ingham) examine the wreckage. We see the smoking remains of the car and its driver lying dead on the hood, but there are no special effects or mimed movements from the actors to illustrate a physical barrier. Instead, the actors look up, down, to the side and directly at the camera, as if indicating the edges of the frame.



The filmmakers were presumably limited in how they might visualize a force field from a budgetary standpoint, but the result is far more interesting than any effect: It is as if the cinema screen has acted as the imprisoning structure.

Veteran television writer Robert Holmes receives credit for INVASION's story. As recounted in Robert Holmes: A Life in Words by Richard Molesworth, Holmes concocted the idea for INVASION with Dr. Phyllis Spreadbury (later Phyllis Mortimer, and misidentified in Molesworth’s book as Phyllis Gibbons), a medical advisor on the series Emergency Ward 10, a popular hospital-based soap opera for which Holmes contributed over 40 teleplays. Holmes brought the idea to producer Jack Greenwood of struggling Merton Park Studios but, not wanting a television writer involved, Greenwood hired Roger Marshall, a friend of Holmes, to expand the treatment into a screenplay. At his friend’s insistence, Marshall wrote the script in collaboration with Spreadbury, who went uncredited.

Although Holmes had a successful career over the next few decades, particularly as a writer and script editor on Doctor Who, he never worked on another feature film and remained in the confines of television. He later recycled story elements and dialogue from INVASION for Spearhead from Space, the only Doctor Who serial to be shot entirely on (16mm) film and the first produced in color.



Ironically, INVASION had only a brief theatrical run overseas and was sold to AIP-TV in the States, where it aired late at night with its beautiful widescreen visuals cropped.

In a surprise reveal, the Lystrian patient turns out to be the escaped prisoner; he stabs Muncaster, takes Dr. Harland hostage, and attempts to flee Earth. The Lystrian Leader (Yoko Tani) has arrived at the hospital to re-capture the criminal and leave with her two female guards. The Leader is ultimately benevolent and expresses remorse over whatever calamities have befallen the humans because of the Lystrians’ arrival: “You wonder why a civilization like ours can still produce destructive people. We are ashamed.”

Intriguingly, the extraterrestrial characters are played by East Asian actors, including “guest star” Tani and, in the role of the Lystrian patient, Eric Young (later Ric Young of THE LAST EMPEROR and THE TRANSPORTER). The filmmakers seem to have hired Chinese and Japanese actors interchangeably for roles intended to reflect western fears of communist subversion (a sci-fi cliche), which is seemingly a deliberate choice considering the film’s treatment of race.

As it turns out, any trepidations from the characters regarding the “other” are mostly unwarranted: The Lystrians are a peaceful species and have no plans of conquering Earth. Moreover, there are indications of social progression beyond even the humans’ capabilities. For one thing, Lystrian females seem to be holding most leadership positions, and the patient finds it unusual that nurses take orders from a male doctor.

Dr. Harland isn’t so convinced of Lystrian superiority: “They still have prisoners,” she notes cynically as a door swings back at her. Curiously, Bridges repeats the image of a door swinging back at actress Tsai Chin, who portrays Nurse Lin.



Does INVASION offer something of a commentary on racial stereotypes in the entertainment industry? Chin toiled in many thankless roles in British film and television, and is probably best known to genre fans as Fu Manchu’s daughter and one of James Bond’s sexual conquests in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (“Darling, I give you very best duck”). She is the only Asian actor in the film who is not one of the aliens, but frequently seen alongside supervising doctor and Caucasian hero Dr. Vernon.

As Chin recalls in her autobiography Daughter of Shanghai:

For Asian or black actors, there are particular disadvantages, now as then. […] Stereotypes … are one-dimensional characters, demanding little creative energy or artistic truth from those who play them. […] As actors, the danger for us is that we begin to perform according to the stereotype. […] Reality becomes divorced from truth and we lose our collective and individual identity, and with it our self-respect. (143-144)



Although not stereotypical, Nurse Lin is, on the page, merely a functional character and, at times, representative of the superficial roles available to Asian actors in the 1960s. But were Bridges and Chin hinting at something more? In the early scenes, Lin's lack of individuality could be seen as a reflection of Eric Young’s Lystrian, who is at first perceived to have no distinguishing characteristics beyond his racial features (“His condition is more important than his identity,” Vernon says.) In one scene Lin is asked her opinion on the origin of the patient, as if she would automatically know simply because of her race:

VERNON: He’s not Chinese.
SISTER EVANS: How do you know?
VERNON: Well …
SISTER EVANS: Is he, nurse?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think so.
SISTER EVANS: Japanese?
NURSE LIN: No, I don’t think –
VERNON: It doesn’t matter. We’ll worry about his nationality later.

Although played in a subtle way, Nurse Lin is visibly uncomfortable, as if reacting to the insensitivity of the questions.



When the Lystrian Leader arrives to locate her prisoner, she hypnotizes Lin into an unconscious state and then assumes the nurse’s role. The hospital employees, seeing only a female with East Asian features, cannot tell the difference and are taken in by the ruse. In this scene Bridges (later known for his indictments of the British class system in THE HIRELING and THE SHOOTING PARTY) expands on the theme of confinement, as Lin is seemingly “trapped” and unable to be recognized as an individual beyond her racial characteristics.

A thoughtful and often challenging piece of science fiction, INVASION is one of the more underrated genre films of the 1960s. It is currently available as a Region 2 DVD from Network.

Robert Holmes: A Life in Words was published by Telos in 2013.

Daughter of Shanghai was originally published by St. Martin’s Press in 1989 and is out of print.