Monthly Archives: January 2013

Football on Film: North Dallas Forty (1979)

In honor of Super Bowl Week, Fante’s Inferno is highlighting the sport of professional football on film:

North Dallas Forty

North Dallas Forty Movie Poster

Release Date: August 3, 1979

Directed by Ted Kotcheff; Written by Frank Yablans & Ted Kotcheff and Peter Gent, based on the novel North Dallas Forty by Peter Gent

Starring: Nick Nolte, Mack Davis, G.D. Spradlin, Charles Durning, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, Dabney Coleman, Dayle Haddon

North Dallas Forty is the football movie I measure all others up against.  That’s a big statement considering the classic football films that have been released over the last forty years: Brian’s Song, The Longest Yard, Remember the Titans and Paper Lion just to name a few.

I’d seen North Dallas Forty several times from my childhood through my teenage years and always enjoyed it, but always at face value as a good film with football as a backdrop.  But as I got older I developed a greater appreciation for it because of how much professional football has changed since then.  Watching it again this week, North Dallas Forty resonates with me on a completely different level now.  It reminded me of what professional players of the 60’s and 70’s went through to play the game on Sunday, warts and all, and gave me a greater sense of the physical toll the game took on their bodies while earning a fraction of the money today’s players make.

Writer Peter Gent took his experiences was a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys in the 60’s and wrote the novel that would become the film.  The North Dallas Bulls football team in the book and film is loosely based on the Cowboys, with characteristics of that NFL team represented by the hyper-professional atmosphere, the team’s over reliance on a computer to gauge performance (and even attitude), and the Tom Landry-esque hat worn by the stern, icy head coach B.A. Strothers (played by G.D. Spradlin).

The movie begin’s with Bulls wide receiver Phil Elliot (Nick Nolte) waking up bloody and sore from the previous night’s game, each ache and pain represented by flashbacks to the hits that caused them the night before.  He gingerly gets out of bed and limps to his kitchen, his ankles still taped up, to start the day with a painkiller and a beer.  He limps like an old man throughout the film, except when he’s on the field.  His routes are precise, his hands the best in the league, and his bum knee numb from the needle.

Elliot’s partner in crime is North Dallas quarterback Seth Maxwell (played by Mac Davis).  They’re two players on the wrong side of 30 doing whatever it takes to make it another week.  But despite their cohesion on the field and their antics off of it, their differences become more evident as the film progresses: Elliot sacrifices for the game while Maxwell games the system.

Director Ted Kotcheff (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Fun with Dick and Jane, First Blood) does a good job balancing  the on and off the field storylines.  On one level you’re looking at this team of characters as they enjoy the lifestyle the game affords them, fueled by alcohol, drugs and women.  On another level you get a peek behind the curtain to see the pressure they’re under to perform and the lengths they’ll go to keep their spot on the roster.

One of the harder hitting scenes in the film occurs as the Bulls watch the game film from their last win.  Despite winning the game, Coach Strothers and his Maalox swilling assistant coach Johnson (Charles Durning) pick apart each play looking for flaws.  Offensive tackle Stallings (played by Jim Boeke, Peter Gent’s real life teammate on the Cowboys in the 60’s) is called out by Strothers for losing his footing and tripping on a play during a crucial drive.  The next scene shows his locker being cleared out by the equipment manager.  This is the moment you realize that even with success, no one is safe.  The film’s score even lends a sense of the sinister, highlighting  B.A.’s mind games, Elliot’s feeling of being watched, the fear each player has of losing his job, and the team doctor’s complicity in allowing them to harm their bodies even more just to play another game.

One of my pet peeves when watching sports films is how unrealistic the extras sitting in the stands can look during the game scenes, particularly in the reaction shots.  Having worked as an extra in a couple of sports films myself, when this is done wrong it can cheapen the look of the film (I may write a blog post on one of my experiences).  But Kotcheff made what I thought was an effective choice as a director by blacking out the stands in shadow during the game scenes.  You become so drawn to the emotion and action of the game that you barely notice that there are no fans visible.

The film has a strong cast down to the supporting characters.  You feel Phil Elliot’s physical pain in Nick Nolte’s performance.  Mac Davis’ nails the part of Maxwell in his first film role, and the confidence he infuses in his character makes you think he would really be able to lead an offense downfield with time running out.  Other notable performances include Bo Svenson as offensive lineman Joe Bob Priddy, the big ox that can snap at any moment, and Oakland Raider great John Matuszak as offensive lineman as O.G. Shaddock.  This was also Matuszak’s first movie, highlighted by a passionate monologue after their division championship game with Chicago.  In his 1987 autobiography Cruisin’ with the Tooz, Matuszak wrote about his audition for this role.  He had never acted before and didn’t really know what to do when he arrived for the audition.  Another actor also auditioning for the role of Shaddock told Matuszak to ask the casting director to let him give a cold reading, thinking that Matuszak’s lack of experience would show.  Matuszak nailed the audition.

North Dallas Forty is more than just a football film.  It’s a film about the pain and sacrifice players make for the game and for the team, only to find out that loyalty doesn’t always go both ways.  As Elliot says towards the end of the film, “The only thing that’s real in that game is me.  And that’s enough.”

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The Captain America Project #15: Allen Bellman

The Captain America Project: 20 artists, 20 drawings of Captain America on one page.

#15: Allen Bellman (Captain America Comics, All Winners Comics, The Human Torch, Marvel Mystery Comics, Sub Mariner Comics, Young Allies Comics)

When I started the Captain America Project in 2010, I never expected to meet or obtain a sketch from a Golden Age comic book artist that actually drew Captain America during World War II.  But last March when I read that Allen Bellman would be attending Mike Carbo’s New York Comic Book Expo, I had to meet him.  Before I could even ask if he was sketching, he saw my Captain America jam page and quickly grabbed a pencil to draw a classic style Cap for me.

Captain America drawn by Allen Bellman

Captain America drawn by Allen Bellman

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Cloak and Dagger #1 (1983)

Cloak and Dagger #1 (October 1983)Cover by Rick Leonardi and Terry Austin

Cloak and Dagger #1 (October 1983)
Cover by Rick Leonardi and Terry Austin

Recently I opened up the old box o’comic books and rediscovered an old favorite of mine from the early 80’s: Cloak and Dagger #1 from the 1983 mini-series written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Rick Leonardi and Terry Austin.

Cloak and Dagger, introduced in Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #64 (March 1982), were created by Bill Mantlo and artist Ed Hannigan.  Runaways Tyrone Johnson (Cloak) and Tandy Bowen (Dagger) meet in New York City and are tricked by an offer of shelter from strangers that prey on runaways.  Tyrone and Tandy are forced to take a synthetic version of heroin, and the side effects of the drug provide them with their superpowers: Cloak creates a dimension of darkness in which he can consume people’s energy to feed his “hunger,” Dagger creates and shoots daggers of light that drain the energy of her enemies and are also used to feed Cloak’s constant hunger.

The first  of the four issue Cloak and Dagger mini-series opens with a splash page of the New York Port Authority on the corner of 42nd Street and 8th Avenue.  It’s July 20, 1983 and the neighborhood in the opening pages bears little resemblance to the Hell’s Kitchen/Times Square of today.  Father Francis Xavier Delgado, a priest born and raised in Hell’s Kitchen, walks among the pimps, prostitutes and lowlifes of the neighborhood in an effort to save them.  That night’s attempt proves fruitless and he returns to the Holy Ghost Church on 42nd street.  He kneels at the altar of the empty church  praying for God’s guidance when Cloak and Dagger appear seeking sanctuary.

Several blocks away at the 21st Precinct, Detective Brigid O’Reilly observes a group of “chickenhawks,” lowlifes that victimize newly arrived runaways at the Port Authority, as they shiver in a jail cell.  Doctors and cops have seen others in their condition and chalk it up to bad drugs, but when questioned by O’Reilly, one of the thugs tells her about  the “angel” of light and “devil” of darkness that put them in their condition.  O’Reilly connects their story to reports of vigilantes attacking criminals and drug pushers, then takes to the streets of Hell’s Kitchen.

After a debate with Father Delgado over the ethics of their “mission” to punish the criminals that prey on runaways, Cloak and Dagger attempt to save a pair of brother-sister teen runaways from a group of chickenhawks.  Gunfire leads Detective O’Reilly to their lair, but before she can act, a stray bullet strikes and kills the brother.  Dagger’s light makes quick work of the lowlifes, but O’Reilly refuses to accept their methods.  To her, Cloak and Dagger’s methods make them no better than the criminals.  She attempts to arrest them, but Cloak teleports them back to the Holy Ghost Church.  Later that night, Father Delgado sees Dagger in tears as he takes a phone call from the 21st Precinct requesting last rights for the dead runaway.

It was usually the art that would draw me to a particular comic book, and this was no exception when Cloak and Dagger #1 hit the stands in 1983.  Seeing Terry Austin’s name on the cover was all I needed to plunk my 60 cents on the counter to buy this issue.  His inks were a great match for Rick Leonardi’s pencils, and an original page from this mini-series has always been on my want list.

But it was Bill Mantlo’s writing, particularly his use of 1983 New York City as a backdrop, that got me to buy the subsequent three issues of this mini-series.  Combined with Leonardi’s pencils and Austin’s inks, Cloak and Dagger brought the seediness of early 80’s Hell’s Kitchen to the comic book page.  Looking back, I’m surprised at how much of that atmosphere they were able to include in their stories.  This was a comic book with a significant readership under the age of 18 that showed pimps, hookers and drugs.  These were dark stories for the time, years before “dark and gritty” would become overused in comic book stories.

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The Captain America Project #14: George Perez

The Captain America Project: 20 artists, 20 drawings of Captain America on one page.

#14: George Perez (The Avengers, The New Teen Titans, Crisis On Infinite Earths)

Next up in the Captain America project is this sketch by the great George Perez.  I obtained this sketch at Megacon in Orlando back in 2011.  George was raffling off sketches for donations to the Hero Initiative and I was fortunate enough to win this addition to my Captain America jam page.   I’ve been a fan of his since his work on The Avengers and he was on my “must have” list when I started The Captain America Project in 2010.  This sketch is a classic version of the Captain America I was introduced to back in the 70’s.

Captain America - George Perez

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