Atlantic City (4/3/81)
The Howling (4/10/81)
The Last Chase (4/10/81)
The Hand (4/24/81)
Ms. 45 (4/24/81)
While March 1981 could be considered the month of noir, April 1981 had something for everybody with eight notable films that included two gritty New York City action thrillers (Nighthawks and Ms. 45), two horror films (The Howling and The Hand), two very different but immensely enjoyable films with knights battling in armor (Excalibur and Knightriders), a crime drama (Atlantic City) and a hard to find dystopian film that barely made a blip upon its release but developed a cult following (The Last Chase). While Excalibur and Atlantic City had the most acclaim of April’s lineup, each of the other films are must sees forty years later.
Even though April 1981’s comedy releases recouped more than their individual budgets, none make the notable list. Hardly Working, written and directed by Jerry Lewis, was a forgettable comedy about a guy that just can’t get things right at numerous jobs. It grossed $25 million domestically (plus $24 million international) despite the terrible reviews and having been shelved for almost two years prior to its release. Carl Gottlieb’s comedy Caveman (April 17) starring Ringo Starr, Shelley Long and Dennis Quaid almost quadrupled its budget with a $16 million gross, but even with the film’s charm and the cast’s on screen chemistry, forty years later it’s a curiosity piece built on slapstick that wears on an adult audience. The comedy Going Ape! starring Tony Danza as the inheritor of three circus orangutans earned $5 million at the box office, but based on the film’s quality it’s safe to say its budget didn’t come close to that amount. Writer/director Jeremy Joe Kronsberg also wrote the successful films Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose starring the beloved orangutan Clyde and a guy named Eastwood, but Going Ape! was unable to sustain the late 70’s/early 80’s orangutan craze (sarcasm), falling flat upon its release and barely rating as a guilty pleasure forty years later.
Cop thriller Nighthawks directed by Bruce Malmuth stood out in a crowded April 10th weekend, with Rutger Hauer as an international terrorist taking his wares to the crime ridden early 80’s New York City, and Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as the NYPD cops tasked with catching him. Early in the film undercover sergeants Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Williams) showcase their unorthodox methods in the decoy unit as they take out New York City’s street crime one thwarted mugging at a time. Meanwhile in London, Wulfgar Reinhardt (Hauer) is Interpol’s most wanted terrorist, planting bombs in support of “the cause” (which is actually not specified in the film). But Wulfgar’s misguided zeal has made him a loose cannon, with little thought of the children killed in the London bombing, and killing one of his own contacts without realizing he was carrying a passport with Wulfgar’s picture. Now he needs a new face and a new territory to earn the terrorist network’s trust as well as the money owed to him. But Interpol is one step ahead of him, banking on Wulfgar’s ego bringing him to New York City to capitalize on the press coverage in the world’s largest media market. DaSilva and Fox are assigned against their will to the new anti-terrorism unit (ATAC) in anticipation of Wulfgar’s arrival in New York. As they grudgingly work their way through the thorough but mundane training by Inspector Hartman (Nigel Davenport), Wulfgar arrives in NYC with a new face and new targets in mind.
For a police thriller set in the crime ridden, early 80’s New York City starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer (in his American film debut), Nighthawks is a pretty restrained film. Unfortunately it drags in the second act, overdoing it with Hartman’s classroom anti-terrorism training, but director Bruce Malmuth makes great use of the New York City locations, especially the scene at the Roosevelt Island tram. Cinematographer James Contner catches every layer of dirt on the buildings, every piece of garbage on the street, and New York City’s depressed haze from the rooftops. Hauer’s performance as Wulfgar (great name…) is a primer for his signature role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner one year later. Stallone and Williams make a great and believable team as they confidently walk where most wouldn’t as an army of two, knowing their street smarts (and the shotguns under their coats) give them an advantage over the street thugs of NYC. Williams is always cool and badass (though under utilized at times in this film), but it’s a really muted performance for Stallone, which makes Deke DaSilva the anti-Cobretti when compared to Stallone’s 1986 over-the-top cop thriller Cobra.
Ms. 45 (April 24), directed by Abel Ferrara from the screenplay by Nicholas St. John, is a hard hitting revenge film starring Zoe Tamerlis as Thana, a mute garment worker who uses the gun of one of her attackers to take her revenge on the lecherous men of New York City. The opening title, accented by five loud, clear gunshots prepares the audience for an hour and twenty minutes of Death Wish inspired vengeance, but nothing can prepare the audience for the brutality of first ten minutes of the film, which are very hard to watch. Thana’s daily life involves the gauntlet of men harassing her and her co-workers in New York’s Garment District, but her stoic innocence and vulnerability is shattered upon her return home from work when she is brutalized in two separate attacks outside and inside her home. She kills her second attacker, and in the process of disposing of his body uses his gun to protect herself and ultimately hunt the seemingly endless string of sleazy, dangerous men that draw themselves to her. Ferrara’s in your face directing style pulls no punches, but what is the line between a scene shot in an unflinching manner and a gratuitous one? Or between hard hitting drama and exploitation? But it’s a hard hitting, well shot independent film, making Ms. 45 noteworthy for 1981. Ferrara skillfully films the city streets in Thana’s thirst for revenge, from daytime shots of abandoned lots and buildings to stylized night shots that showcase Thana’s own personal transformation from meek seamstress to stylish killer (especially the scene shot at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park). But make no mistake, Ms. 45 is a film that is endured as much as enjoyed, but can still be respected for its overall cinematic merits.
In director Joe Dante’s classic horror film The Howling Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a Los Angeles news reporter dealing with severe trauma she suffered after going too deep undercover to unmask a sexual predator. At the advice of psychologist George Waggner (played by Patrick MacNee), Karen and her husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) visit his Colony for patients to continue her therapy, which they will find out is not what it seems. Bill is attacked by a werewolf and himself undergoes a transformation during a moment of infidelity with Colony resident Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). Dee Wallace carries the emotional weight of the film from the opening scenes, but The Howling takes awhile to get to the crux of the horror, meandering through Karen’s psychological trauma and her strained marriage with Bill before living up to its title as a werewolf film. Dante got a lot of production value out of the film’s $1.5 million budget, highlighted by the locations, production design and Rob Bottin’s makeup effects for the werewolf sequences. Despite the limits of the horror make-up effects of that era when (unfairly) compared to today’s standards, there is something the latex, slime and fur brings to the screen that is missing from a flat, lifeless CGI effect, and shows the difference between “lifelike” (practical) and “realistic” (CGI). But Joe Dante’s The Howling is not a nostalgia piece for special effects comparison, but rather a layered story that’s part horror, part psychological thriller and just the right amount of camp. Definitely worth revisiting.
Martin Burke’s dystopian The Last Chase (April 10) shows its age forty years later (if you can find it), but its dated veneer shouldn’t discount it from the list of notable films of 1981. Since its cinematic blip on the radar and subsequent run on cable TV, The Last Chase hasn’t exactly worked its way up to “forgotten classic” status, but the theme of this film and the great cast makes it more engaging today. Lee Majors plays former race car driver Frank Hart, who twenty years after his career ended for causing an accident that killed two drivers, lives a tired, solitary life working as a spokesman for a now auto-less Boston’s transportation authority. Fed up with pushing anti-car propaganda by day, at night he works on a secret project reassembling his old race car for a cross country “escape” to California with the help of prep student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). But they’ll have to outrun former Korean and Vietnam War fighter pilot J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith) to get there. Read my full review here.
To include Oliver Stone’s The Hand (April 10) in the list of Michael Caine’s questionable film choices back in the 80’s (see Water and Jaws: The Revenge as examples) is both unfair and an inaccurate assessment of a very effective psychological thriller and diamond in the rough for 1981. Caine plays Jon Lansdale, successful cartoonist of the newspaper comic strip Mandro, who loses his drawing hand in a car accident. The loss of his livelihood takes a toll on his relationships with his wife and daughter (played by Andrea Marcovicci and Mara Hobel), and he moves to California to start over in a teaching position at a local college. But he’s haunted by his severed hand, now with a life of its own and back to hurt those around him. The Hand is an underrated film, with a chilling, understated performance by Michael Caine. My full review can be found here.
Release Date: April 3, 1981 (U.S.)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren, Kate Reid
Directed by Louis Malle; Screenplay by John Guare; Cinematography by Richard Ciupka; Editing by Suzanne Baron
Director Louis Malle’s drama Atlantic City is technically a 1980 film, having premiered in France (September 3, 1980) and Canada (December 19, 1980) due to their co-production of the film, but I’ve included it in 1981’s list of notable films not only for its April 3, 1981 U.S. release date, but also the $12.7 million U.S. box office and the five Academy Award nominations it earned that year (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor and Actress).
The film begins with former gangster Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) watching Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) perform her evening ritual of rubbing lemon juice on herself in front of her kitchen window.(there’s a good reason for this) from his modest apartment near the Atlantic City boardwalk. It’s a serene moment to open the film, but Malle (My Dinner With Andre, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Vanya on 42nd Street) took screenwriter John Guare’s script and crafted a drama that expertly transitions the ebbs and flows between the quieter character driven scenes and the violent crime moments in an Atlantic City that has seen better, and rougher days.
Cut to a Philadelphia phone booth where a scruffy David (Robert Joy) scopes out a stash of cocaine left for a drug deal and swoops in to swipe it just before the intended recipients can pick it up. He takes it on the road with his pregnant girlfriend Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), making plans for when the baby arrives, even if those plans are not born out of good judgment. But their car breaks down on the highway and they’re forced to walk and hitch a ride in the back of a flatbed truck to an Atlantic City that is in a state of decay and irrelevance, evidenced by the demolition of one of its once classic hotels. David and Chrissie walk the boardwalk to one of the casinos lugging their gear like two old school hobos, standing out among the more decently dressed gamblers as they look for Sally, who’s none too happy to see them at her work and their latest attempt to mooch off of her. But yet again she falls prey to sympathy for her pregnant sister and takes David and Chrissie to her apartment just as a dapper Lou leaves his next door apartment to start his day’s work.
Lou’s job is taking care of the bedridden former beauty queen Grace (Kate Reid) by cooking her meals, walking her dog and doing her shopping. She treats him horribly but he takes it in stride (can anyone else besides the great Burt Lancaster play it this cool?). Meanwhile at Sally’s apartment, David has no problem taking her for granted, pushing another guilt trip and stealing the wallet from her purse. Her connection to the hopeless couple goes farther a strained sisterly bond: David is Sally’s ex-husband who left her for Chrissie.
Lou catches Sally on the boardwalk running back to her job. He drops off Grace’s poodle for a grooming and begins his rounds collecting small change bets for a numbers game. Sally takes a blackjack class under the watchful eyes and lecherous hands of her strict teacher Joseph, hoping to one day work her way up to dealer. As Lou drops the days bets off at a local club, an anxious David tries to cut the owner Fred in on the sale of his recent score of cocaine. Fred knows where the stash came from and refuses to do business with David, but gives him the number of a potential customer. David schmoozes Lou into letting him use his apartment, and back at Lou’s place he cuts the cocaine with powdered laxatives to double the day’s score from $2,000 to $4,000.
Lou shows David around Atlantic City, the stomping grounds he never left since he worked for the men who worked for the likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. He’s an understated, charming old man, but he’s not in David’s game to fill a desperation for conversation. Lou wants back into bigger action than the quarter bets he collects for Frank. They walk into the hotel where the deal will take place, but David asks Lou to take the stash up for him and collect the cash while he waits in the lobby. Lou is suspicious of a set up but David convinces him his shabby attire would work against him in the deal. He reluctantly takes it, but more as a kind uncle than a hardened dealer. As Lou walks into a smokey poker game to close the deal, David walks the streets but he’s stopped and chased by the dealers he stole from in Philly (Vinnie and Felix), sold out by Frank. He climbs up a car parking rack (a very good sequence) but is unable to get away and stabbed.
Lou surprises himself by closing the $4,000 deal and washes his face to regain his composure. He’s recognized by his old friend Buddy working as a bathroom attendant and they reminisce about their old organized crime days over a shoeshine (complete with a story about Atlantic City’s former kingpin Nucky Johnson). He leaves the hotel to the sound of sirens and flashing police lights and sees David loaded into the back of an ambulance.
Sally is working in the oyster bar when a police detective brings her wallet that was found on David. They rush to the hospital but arrive just as David is pronounced dead. Sally is neither heartbroken or surprised, and when she tries to make a collect long distance call to David’s parents in Saskatchewan they won’t even accept the charges (does it get more Atlantic City than making a phone call as Robert Goulet croons outside of the phone booth?). Lou is there to walk her home, but they stop into a diner where Lou makes the call to break the news to David’s parents. As they walk into their crummy apartment building, they finally introduce themselves and call it a night.
Lou tries to wind down with a shot of whiskey and counts the $4000 in his pocket. He watches Sally through their windows as she starts her nightly routine of rubbing lemon juice on her skin to remove the smell from her work at the oyster bar. Inspired, or rather (ahem) invigorated, he pays Grace a visit. The next day he brings Sally the paperwork for David’s services and then treats himself to a new suit before dropping off another stash of cocaine to the poker players in Room 307. With renewed confidence Lou shows that he’s in control of the transaction by firmly not accepting anything but the cash. But that newfound swagger doesn’t diminish his loyalty to his old friends, and Lou celebrates in his new fortune by helping Buddy.
He meets Sally as she gets off work to let her know David’s body will be returned to his parents in Canada. She’s suspicious to his motives but he convinces her he’s on the level. Over lunch she tells Lou her dream of moving to Monaco to work as a blackjack dealer. Intrigued by Lou, she asks him to teach her things about life and the world, but draws a line when he asks to see her again. They return to their apartment building to be met by Vinnie and Felix hell bent on reclaiming their stash. They pay Lou no mind, but manhandle Sally as they search her for the missing cocaine. Lou stands helpless, his “old school” quasi gangster persona nothing more than a shell. Sally’s apartment has been broken into and ransacked, but Lou’s was untouched so he takes the stash, packs a bag and gun, and he’s out the door.
No spoilers here. Atlantic City weaves a story that lays just the right amount of sympathy for the aged hero and nostalgia for a long gone era without compromising the crime and suspense. As the third act plays out, we begin to see Lou for who he really is, rather than who he portrays himself to be. Burt Lancaster is a gem in each of the films he starred in throughout his career, and it’s hard to imagine another actor that could have brought the same pathos and resilience to the screen in Atlantic City. He and Sarandon are perfect opposite each other as two boardwalk working stiffs developing a realistic May/December relationship, and the supporting cast brings the additional emotional weight that engages an audience in the ramifications of their actions: from the ne’er do well David’s thirst for the quick big payoff with no regard to the dangers it poses to the mother of his child, to Chrissie’s naivete and inability to take full responsibility for stealing her sister’s husband. This film is a near flawless crime drama with Richard Ciupka’s cinematography representing the bleak day to day of a near forgotten city that lost hope for better days ahead, seamlessly cut together by editor Suzanne Baron. But the main theme of Atlantic City is more than nostalgia, but also the desire and sometimes desperation to hold on to one’s own relevance in a changing world.
Next up: We round out April 1981’s notable films by revisiting old school and new(ish) school Medieval times with John Boorman’s Excalibur and George Romero’s Knightriders!