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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Excalibur and Knightriders)

Excalibur

Release Date: April 10, 1981 (US)
Starring: Nigel Terry, Nicol Williamson, Nicholas Clay, Cherie Lunghi, Helen Mirren, Paul Geoffrey
Directed by John Boorman; Written by John Boorman and Rospo Pallenberg (based on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur); Cinematography by Alex Thomson; Edited by John Merritt

John Boorman’s classic Excalibur is one of a handful of films that has had a profound effect on me from the first time I watched it (in case you’re curious, the others are Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso), and to say this film hit me at the right time is an understatement. I missed out on seeing Excalibur on the big screen at my local movie theater in April 1981, but the day the film launched on cable television I was hooked to the point where I noted each screening listed in the monthly cable guide to watch it every chance I could. Excalibur is an incredible film on all levels, especially the production design and costumes that make earlier films of the genre look too polished (the look of the film was said to be influenced by Roger Christian’s lost but ultimately rediscovered 1980 short film The Black Angel). Excalibur also came in my life as my interest in Dungeons & Dragons developed, opening my mind to a world of imagination and creativity that extended to storytelling and art (I’ve lost count of how many knights, wizards, thieves and rangers I drew back then!). So Excalibur is a very personal film for me because with each screening, even forty years later, I’m transported back to a time in my life when a group of us would meet up Saturdays for a marathon D&D game that would last into the night.

Excalibur begins with a night battle of armored knights thundering through the forest on their armored, snorting horses. Merlin (Nicol Williamson) surveys the field as the armies of Uther and Cornwall face off in the fog, swords clanging against their heavy plate mail. Uther (Gabriel Byrne) confronts Merlin about the sword he was promised, but Merlin will only give it to him if he wages a truce. The next morning, the arm of the Lady of the Lake rises from still waters to produce Excalibur. With Excalibur in hand, Uther offers his enemy Cornwall (Corin Redgrave) the lands to the sea if he enforces Uther’s will as King. As they feast to celebrate their truce, Uther can’t keep his lustful eyes off of Cornall’s wife Igrayne (Katryne Boorman), and casts the newfound peace aside to wage a war for another man’s wife.

As his army lays siege to Cornwall’s castle, Uther requests Merlin’s magic as an advantage. But Merlin will only oblige in return for the product of Uther’s lust. Uther pulls his army back, and that night Merlin uses the Charm of Making to draw in the fog, which pulls Cornwall’s men out to battle Uther’s army. Merlin transforms Uther into the form of Cornwall so he can enter the castle. Meanwhile, Cornwall is killed when he is thrown off of his horse and impaled. At that moment his daughter Morgana senses his death, but Uther arrives in the form of Cornwall and tricks Igrayne into giving herself to him. She is in disbelief the next morning when the real Cornwall’s dead body is brought back to her.

Nine months later, Igrayne has given birth to Uther’s son. But his joy as a father is short lived when Merlin arrives to receive his end of the bargain: their baby. Igrayne now realizes it was Uther that arrived in Cornwall’s place that night during the battle, screaming as Uther rips their child from her arms and hands him to Merlin, who leaves under the creepy eyes and silver tongue of Cornwall and Igrayne’s daughter Morgana. The next morning as Uther rides through the forest to get back his child, he’s ambushed and severely wounded. He staggers through the mud with Excalibur in hand to keep it from his enemies. He declares that no one will wield Excalibur but him, thrusts the sword into a stone with the last of his strength and dies.

Years later Arthur (Nigel Terry) serves as a squire to his father Ector (Clive Swift) and brother Kay (Niall O’Brien). A joust is held to give victorious knights the right to try to draw Excalibur from the stone and be named king, but the sword does not free itself for the unworthy. Arthur forgets his brother Kay’s sword back at their tent, but by the time he gets to it, it’s been stolen. Arthur chases the young thief to retrieve it but soon loses him in the woods. In desperate need of a sword he’s faced with Excalibur glowing in the stone and innocently pulls it free. Kay finds Arthur holding Excalibur, and Ector orders him to put it back in the stone so the people can see him free it. Uryens (Keith Buckley) forces his way to the stone to attempt to free it. But the sword won’t move for him and the worthy Arthur easily pulls the sword from the stone again to be declared king. Ector confesses to Arthur that Merlin brought him as a baby to them to raise as his son. Merlin appears to tell Arthur he is the son of Uther and the new king, but Uryens and his men declare trickery by Merlin and sides are drawn.

Arthur escapes the crowd to follow Merlin into the woods, questioning his ability to be king. Merlin tells him as king he will be one with the land and the land one with him. The next morning as Arthur starts to get a feel for the sword, he follows Merlin to his destiny: Leondegrance’s castle at Cameliard is under siege and Arthur leads his new allies to defend him.

Arthur and his new army arrive to the castle of a severely outnumbered Leondegrance (Patrick Stewart), who can barely hold Uryens’ men from scaling the wall. His daughter Guinevere (Cherie Lunghi) sees the brave squire turned king scale the castle walls and single-handedly fight his way save Leondegrance. He then jumps into the moat, knocking Uryens off his horse and forcing him to swear faith to him as his king. Uryens refuses to swear faith to a squire, so Arthur hands him Excalibur to knight him to the surprise to everyone around him. Uryens is overtaken by Excalibur and knights the young king, swearing his undying loyalty. After the battle, Guinevere stitches up Arthur’s wound and wins his heart.

Fast forward to an older, confident Arthur who is faced with a single knight that his army cannot defeat: Sir Lancelot. Each of his knights defeated handily by the lone knight, Arthur faces Lancelot on a bridge and commands him to move for them to pass. The coolly confident Lancelot, burdened with the curse of not finding a worthy match that can defeat him, challenges Arthur to a joust. Arthur is knocked off of his horse but refuses to yield. Lancelot has the advantage but accepts hand to hand combat, making it look too easy as Arthur’s rage gets the best of him. Lancelot draws blood and Arthur is knocked onto the rocks of the falls below them. Arthur calls on Excalibur’s power and by his rage the sword breaks in half as it knocks out Lancelot. Disgusted with himself and his treatment of the worthy opponent Lancelot, Arthur throws the broken Excalibur into the water, ashamed of his vanity destroying the sword of his father. The Lady of the Lake appears with a mended Excalibur, and at Merlin’s prodding Arthur takes it from her hands in disbelief. Lancelot, finally bested and having given up his castle and land, pledges himself to the king. Time passes, and after a successful battle that ends a war Arthur calls his knights together, pledging to build a round table to tell their deeds, a castle around the table, and to marry a queen to bear an heir.

But the future the Arthur hopes for is thrown off course when Lancelot is tasked with escorting Guinevere to the wedding, and their hearts are brought together. Lancelot’s loyalty is pledged to the king, but his love to Guinevere, keeping that love in check by spending much of his time away from Camelot and the new queen. This arouses the suspicion of the now adult Morgana (Helen Mirren), who pushes Sir Gawain (Liam Neeson) to accuse Guinevere of infidelity with Lancelot. Lancelot successfully defends her honor, but they ultimately give in to their temptation. Arthur discovers their infidelity and thrusts Excalibur into the ground between their sleeping bodies. Guinevere and Lancelot wake up, horrified by the sight of Excalibur. A king without a sword will lead to a land without a king, plunging the kingdom into despair and hunger for years to come.

No spoilers here. Each scene in Excalibur is reminiscent of a pre-Raphaelite painting (see John William Waterhouse’s 1888 painting The Lady of Shalot and Sir John Everett Mills’ Ophelia), with director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hell In the Pacific) filling the screen with imposing armor designed by Terry English and the lush greens of the production’s filming locations in Ireland (Cahir Castle in County Tipperary was the location of Leondegrance’s castle). The young cast is a Who’s Who of today’s dramatic royalty which includes Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart and the amazing Helen Mirren. I was a surprise to me that many critics in 1981 were dismissive of the film. While Boorman’s and Rospo Pallenberg’s adaptation deviates from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Artur, Excalibur truly stands on its own as a pure fantasy film for its sincere, uncomplicated story. And that sincerity is unmatched by the more recent Arthurian fantasy films that with all of their flash never had the heart of Excalibur. Boorman’s direction, the cast, production design (especially the armor!) and locations are magic on the screen, critics be damned. And one magical sword gave us one timeless classic.

Knightriders

Release Date: April 10, 1981
Starring: Ed Harris, Tom Savini, Gary Lahti, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest
Written and Directed by George A. Romero

The other (kinda sorta) Arthurian themed film released on a crowded April 10th weekend was horror director George A. Romero’s Knightriders, starring Ed Harris as the king of a traveling renaissance fair complete with knights competing in jousts on motorcycles. The film is a deviation from Romero’s better known horror films (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) as a heartfelt but exciting drama representing the dynamics and social structure of the film’s renaissance fair troupe and the king trying to keep them together. But it’s the motorcycles that set the film apart from what could have been a straightforward drama, lending an authentic cool factor to the story. Like Excalibur, Knightriders was also a favorite of mine when it debuted on cable TV in the early 80’s. That was a time in my life when we spent our Saturdays playing D&D and Sunday mornings riding our Honda on dirt trails with our friends.

The film begins with Billy (Ed Harris), also known as the troupe’s King William, waking up with his Queen Linet (Amy Ingersoll) in a lush forest, absorbing the serenity and sounds of nature. But Linet’s watchful, concerned eye sees the crown weighing heavily on the king’s head. After his morning routine which includes self flagellation, Billy dons his helmet, starts his motorcycle and hits the road with the royally garbed Linet holding on to him. In Bakersfield, the renaissance fair is under way as locals partake in the food and trinkets, but the real show is on hold as two local deputies hassle the troupe for a bribe in spite of their legal permit. Morgan (Tom Savini) wants to pay them off and be done with it, but Billy won’t allow them to be strong armed, holding the line and daring the deputy to stop their show. Principles intact, the games begin.

Emcee Pippin (Warner Shook) introduces the motorcycle riding knights of the day’s jousting tournament as they draw lots for their opponents. Lances are sawed down to break easier, but the contact and falls are real. Morgan has his eyes on William’s crown and to get there has forged an all too real mace that outweighs the fake weapons, drawing concern from Alan (Gary Lahti) who predicts someone will get seriously hurt. That prediction nearly comes true when William is forced to defend his crown against Morgan. Already recovering from a shoulder injury that hasn’t fully healed, William stands up to the challenge and his duty as king even if he’s not fully healthy. When knocked off his bike and close to losing his crown, his knights led by Alan and Rocky (Cynthia Adler) save William from defeat and he’s brought to Merlin’s converted bus for medical treatment.

As he receives treatment from Merlin (Brother Blue), Alan gives him an earful about how he’s taking unnecessary risks that could jeopardize his health and the group. Billy gets back enough strength to return to the games, and when a young boy asks him to sign his picture in a motorcycle magazine, Billy disappoints him by declining the autograph due to the article painting him as the type of rider he refuses to be. Morgan happily signs the boy’s magazine as “the next king.” Another successful fair completed, the troupe cleans up the field, hangs up the weapons and hunts wild turkeys for their dinner as a community, each with their own roles (including Friar Tuck’s distillery).

But their night’s sleep is broken up by a nighttime raid by Bakersfield Deputy Cook (Michael P. Moran), who plants marijuana in a member of the troupe’s camper but offers Billy another chance for a payoff. Morgan practically begs him to pay Deputy Cook off so they can make their next gig, but Billy refuses and gets hauled to jail along with Ban (Marty Schiff). Billy orders the troupe to stay put until he’s back but Linet takes charge and goes against Billy’s orders, having the group pack up and get a head start to their next town. Alan gets his new girlfriend Julie (Patricia Tallman) to hit the road with him, getting her away from her drunken father and her abused mother. As Ban gets beaten up by Cook in the Bakersfield jail, Angie (Christine Forrest) and Pippin find the troupe’s lawyer Steve (Ken Hixon) who gets Billy and Ban out of jail and back on the road. But for Billy, the fight with Cook is not over.

Billy catches up with the troupe but is incensed they went against his orders. For Billy the troupe is a community and an extension of his ideals, which begins to come apart when smarmy promoter Bontempi (Martin Ferrero) attempts to sign Morgan and his knights away for a bigger and more lucrative act. Infighting and conflicts between Billy and the troupe take a toll and Billy starts to question himself as king. Lines are drawn, and one true fight for the crown must take place.

No spoilers here. George A. Romero’s Knightriders is a beloved film that forty years later still has loyal fans, myself included. The motorcycle sequences are still fantastic, making you wish they expanded the battle scenes, and Ed Harris delivers a performance that unquestionably establishes Billy’s principles and values. His heart is in this role, with no less commitment from the supporting cast that brings out the camaraderie of the troupe in their scenes. It would be unfair to dismiss the motorcycle themed plot and action sequences of Knightriders as gimmicks because Romero crafted a near perfect film on all levels. Could you imagine a drive in double feature of Excalibur and Knightriders? This is a film that lives up to the amazing image on the movie poster. Long live the king.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (April)

April

Atlantic City (4/3/81)
Nighthawks (4/10/81)
Excalibur (4/10/81)
The Howling (4/10/81)
Knightriders (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.

Atlantic City

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!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (Thief and Diva)

Thief

Release Date: 3/27/81
Starring: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Jim Belushi, Robert Prosky
Written and Directed by Michael Mann
Cinematography by Donald Thoren

It was Michael Mann’s Thief that inspired this retrospective and motivated me to revisit the full list of films of 1981 to declare it the most underrated year of cinema. Older films should not be judged simply for dated elements that can detach viewers from the story, but it’s an unfortunate fact that some films don’t withstand the test of time. Thief doesn’t fall into that category and still hits on all cylinders 40 years later, with gritty cinematography, smooth editing, and a score that screams early 80s cool. These elements still inspire, which is why Thief is one of the best films of 1981 and set the stage for the great work Michael Mann would bring to television and cinema over the course of his career.

Thief hooks you in from the opening sequence, and it starts with three simple elements that are expertly brought together: The electric blue title on a black background. Rainy streets at night. A mesmerizing soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. But these signature 80’s touches shouldn’t be judged as mere tropes, but rather as the foundation for a style that would be imitated throughout the decade and beyond, making Thief one of the premiere examples of 80’s neo-noir. While the foundations of March 1981’s other noir films Cutter’s Way and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on murder and greed, Thief makes it all about the heist.

The film begins on a rainy Chicago night as three men quietly walk into a car that pulls out onto an empty street, on their way to their night’s work. Parked in a dark alley the driver sits in the car as the spotter, listening to the police radio for any hint of their activity. The tech whiz Barry (played by Jim Belushi) disables the alarm. The safe cracker Frank (played by James Caan) works an industrial drill into a seemingly impenetrable safe. They know if they each do their jobs right, there won’t be a hitch. Frank cracks the safe, throwing aside everything except the boxes of diamonds. The score successful, they methodically pack up and move on without a word. No questions about next steps or mistrust about who holds the loot, these guys are professionals down to the coveralls and separate getaway cars.

By day Frank runs a successful car dealership, but his main financial interests are based on his night work. He meets with his middleman Joe Gags at a diner to move the diamonds for cash. Gags offers to buy them outright for $185,000 and they arrange for Barry to pick up the payment. Gags lets Frank know there are some “stand up guys” that want to meet him, but Frank resists because he doesn’t want the complications. After their handshake deal Frank turns his attention to the hostess Jessie (played by Tuesday Weld), scoring a date with her for later that night. Afterwards as he takes a break from his work at the car lot, he reads a letter from his friend Okla who’s currently in prison and needs to see Frank as soon as possible.

But even the best laid plans can fall victim to an unexpected hitch. Frank gets an urgent message to call Barry who tells him he can’t make the cash pickup because Gags cheated the wrong guy, Attaglia, and was pushed out a window with their $185,000 in his pocket. Frank pays a visit to Attaglia’s steel plating company to make him cover the $185,000 that will now end up in police evidence. He’s not in the mood for Attaglia playing dumb, so Frank makes him an offer he can’t refu—, sorry, he puts a gun to Attaglia’s head and tells him he has until that night to pay up.

Frank stops at the prison to see Okla (played by Willie Nelson) who asks Frank to help him get out as soon as possible. Frank tells him to hang tight because he only has ten months left in his sentence, but Okla doesn’t have that long due to a heart condition and he doesn’t want to die in prison. Frank gives him his word he’ll get him out, and another weight is added to his shoulders.

Later that night Frank arrives at the pickup spot for his $185,000, unphased by the two men Attaglia brought with him. Meanwhile two cops on a stake out are taking pictures of the transaction, and Barry is perched on top of a nearby billboard with a gun pointed at Attaglia’s group…just in case. The creepily in control Leo (played by Robert Prosky) calmly hands Frank his money but also has a proposition for him. Leo is the upstream guy who had Gags in his pocket and runs scores all over the country. He offers Frank the opportunity to work on higher stakes jobs that could make him a millionaire in months. All jobs would be properly cased, and if he’s caught there’s also a lawyer to spring him. Frank is hesitant, but if he accepts he’s only bound to two or three jobs with the opportunity to then move on if he chooses. Frank tells him he’ll think about it.

His meeting with Leo makes him two hours late for his date with Jessie, who sits fuming in a crowded club, not interested in going on with their date. She has no patience for his excuses but he has even less patience and drags her out to his car, flashing his gun at anyone trying to stop him. On Okla’s advice, and with Jessie in the front seat as a captive audience, he comes clean about his work as a thief. Over coffee at a diner (and after Jessie calling him an asshole) they let down their guards and open up: how Frank went to prison for stealing $40, and Jessie’s ex moved drugs and died. She’s happy with her ordinary, boring life but she gives Frank a chance. This diner scene is priceless, and Frank’s moving story about how he survived prison is just one of many pieces of Thief that make it notable. Caan and Weld play their scenes with authenticity, with Jessie bridging the hard hitting scenes with moments of tenderness and devotion.

Frank calls Leo from a payphone to accept his offer, but for only for big scores, and shortly after he and Barry fly out to LA to case their first job. When he gets back he wastes no time starting a life with Jessie buying a house in the suburbs. Now the work begins. He contracts his old friend Sam, a machinist, for the equipment he’ll need to burn through the safe. Sam is surprised by the safe’s specs, which will need custom equipment that he may not even be able to build, but he’ll find a way. But while the bigger job will give him a bigger score, it also comes with bigger risks, and a bigger commitment that he may not be prepared for.

Okla’s granted early release thanks to the creative work of his lawyer and a $6,000 cash payment to the judge. Frank and Jessie try to adopt a child, but his criminal record makes them less desirable as parents and their dream is crushed. Frank calls the case worker out on her hypocrisy, telling her he was a child of the system who understands the despair of growing up in an institution. But his words and his temper get them nowhere as he and Jessie are escorted out. Mann masterfully ends the sequence with a simple shot of Frank and Jessie later that night as they sit outside their home, silently and in each others arms, as their house begins to look more empty.

Soon after Frank is tailed by two Chicago detectives and is pulled over. Sergeant Urizzi and his partner offer to “make life easier” for Frank and establish a new business relationship to the tune of giving them ten points on any score through Leo. Frank refuses, but it’s far from over and he’s now a marked man. Chicago PD watch Frank’s every move, bug his house, and take him in at gunpoint on a bogus traffic violation to “persuade” him to take their offer. Frank confronts Leo about the increase in the heat. Leo says he’ll take care of it and also helps Frank with the adoption issue. His family complete, his equipment built, and the building’s alarm password recorded, it’s time to get to work. But as Frank will realize, each new “gift” comes with strings attached, and honor among thieves doesn’t count for much.

No spoilers here. Director Michael Mann, cinematographer Donald Thoren and editor Dov Hoenig constructed a near flawless film that is perfectly matched with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack, and arguably sets the tone for 80’s neo-noir. But it’s James Caan’s performance that truly makes the film memorable. He brings more to the role than just a safe cracker looking for one last big score (though Caan actually looks like he can crack a few safes between movies if he wanted to). The weight of his performance brings Frank’s humanity front and center: he’s a man who is loyal to his friends and ultimately wants the family that eluded him in life, and will do anything to protect it. Caan’s performance as Sonny Corleone in 1972’s The Godfather will always be his signature role, but Thief will always be Caan’s signature film.

Diva

Release Date: March 11, 1981 (France)
Starring: Frederic Andrei, Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, Jacques Fabbri, Thuy An Luu, Anny Romand, Chantal Deruaz
Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix
Screenplay by Jean Van Hamme & Jean-Jacques Beineix (based on the book Diva by Delacorta)
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot

While the the look of Michael Mann’s Thief exudes a gritty realism, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s French crime thriller Diva stands out for the beautifully saturated cinematography and methodically crafted directing style of the cinema du look that puts the noir elements in the story and a cool 80’s new wave sheen in the visuals. For years I’d confused this film with 1987’s Aria, and revisiting Diva was a welcome rediscovery of an intriguing film that mesmerizes with each scene.

Jules (played by Frederic Andrei), a postal carrier in Paris, attends the performance of opera singer Cynthia Hawkins (played by real life soprano Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez) after his shift. Still wearing his postal hat and jacket, he stands out among the well dressed audience. But the postal bag on his lap hides a Nagra reel to reel audio recorder he uses to bootleg her performance, and gets the attention of two men sitting behind him. After the recital he briefly meets Hawkins backstage for an autograph. She is charmed by his postal outfit and politely chats with him, but Jules is quickly pushed aside by one of her acquaintances. Everyone backstage is focused on Hawkins which allows Jules to swipe her dress from the performance. He returns to his modest loft located in a mechanic’s garage with his new trophy and listens to his high quality recording of the night’s recital.

The next day while Jules is on his rounds, a young woman named Nadia (played by Chantal Deruaz) wanders in a train station, standing out among the morning commuters with bare feet and fear in her eyes. A car pulls up and two mysterious men, L’Antillais (played by Gerard Darmond) and Le Cure (played by Dominique Pinon) enter the station looking for her, but Nadia’s behavior makes the audience wonder if she’s trying to escape from them or actually draw them in. They spot her and she quickly heads for an exit. Outside the station she eyes Jules’ idling moped, but rather than stealing it she clandestinely drops something into one of the side bags. In the distance, Paula (played by Anny Romand) and Krantz (Jean-Jacques Moreau) sit at a cafe table observing Nadia but don’t intervene when the two men catch up to her. She bumps into Jules, but as he tries to help her up, Le Cure shoves him aside flashing a police identification. Paula gets up to help Nadia but she is held down by Krantz because something is “off” about the situation. Jules rides off and the goons shove Nadia into the back of their car, but she breaks free. As she tries to escape she gets an ice pick in the back, killing her instantly. As the two goons drive off, Paula curses under her breath over Nadia’s dead body.

Jules chats up young shoplifter Alba (played by Thuy An Luu) and asks her on a date. At a junk yard L’Antillais’ car is destroyed as he tries to explain the situation over with an interested party on the other end of the call. At a police precinct, Paula and her partner Nortier (Gerard Chaillou) explain to Commissioner Saporta (Jacques Fabbri) that Nadia was a prostitute who was trying to blow the lid on an international drug and prostitution ring known as the “West Indian Network.” Saporta is skeptical and doesn’t want to pursue it. The man with Paula at the station, Krantz, is an informer who had a relationship with Nadia, and he tells the chief she was going to name of the head of the West Indian Network. The chief is suddenly more interested in the case when he hears she named names on the audio tape she dropped in Jules’ moped bag.

Jules brings Alba to his flat to impress her with his recording equipment. She’s taken a liking to Jules and gives him a stolen Rolex as a gift, and he shares with her Cynthia’s performance of “La Wally” from the night before. Meanwhile at a local carnival, Krantz runs a game stand but meets the same fate as Nadia with an ice pick in his back. Back at Jules’ place, Alba is moved by Cynthia’s performance and borrows it for her boyfriend, conceptual artist Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). After Alba leaves, Jules picks up a prostitute, having her wear Cynthia’s blue dress for their tryst. While he’s at her place, the two men from the recital tear up his apartment. When Jules returns, he breaks down in tears at the destruction of his precious recordings. He stays with two friends, and the next morning one of them calls in from work to tell Jules two men came in asking about him. He borrows his friend’s motorcycle so as not to be recognized on his signature yellow moped. But while reaching into his moped’s side bag for his gloves, Jules finds Nadia’s tape. Paula and Nortier see the aftermath of Jules’ apartment realize others are interested in Nadia’s recording as well.

By now the theft of Cynthia’s dress has made front page news. Jules makes his way into Cynthia’s suite under the guise of a flower delivery. She offers him a tip, but instead he gives her back the blue dress from her performance. She recognizes Jules as the postman she met after the show, but he doesn’t get the reaction he was expecting for his honesty and she threatens to call hotel security. He confesses he’s traveled to see her European shows, giving details of each performance down to the songs performed and the encores she wouldn’t give. Cynthia warms up to him when she realizes he’s a true fan and sets up a date with him for later in the night. At her afternoon press conference, she is asked why she never records her performances to which she replies that she doesn’t agree with that combination of art and commerce, and that bootlegs are a violation. The two men from the concert take their leave from the press conference.

In a dark parking garage, L’Antillais and Le Cure meet up with the man who has a vested interest in Nadia’s bombshell recording: Commissioner Saporta, the head of the West Indian Network. He instructs them to find Jules and the tape no matter the cost, and if he goes down, they go down with him. Meanwhile Jules meets with Cynthia for their date, spending the night and early morning hours walking around Paris until they return to her suite and their acquaintance turns romantic. Her comfort with Jules allows her to let him listen to her rehearse, something she had never allowed before. That morning, Gorodish is called by the two men that saw Jules bootleg the recital and they express their interest in obtaining the recording. Soon after, they call Jules at Cynthia’s suite to shake him down for the tape. The men, Taiwanese businessmen, then show up at Cynthia’s hotel to make an offer to her manager: she signs an exclusive recording contract with them or they release the bootleg without consequences or payment to her due to Taiwan’s non-compliance with international copyright laws. Jules’ dream come true of a relationship with Cynthia is now in danger of turning into a nightmare due to his actions at the concert.

Jules leaves the hotel and is quickly tailed by Paula and detective Zapotek (Patrick Floersheim). Jules leads them on a chase through and under the streets of Paris in a chase sequence that kicks up the adrenaline. He tracks down the prostitute from the previous night and asks to hide in her place. While alone in her apartment, Jules plays Nadia’s tape. As he hears her statement of Saporta’s role in the West Indian Network, he realizes the woman giving him sanctuary is also a part of it. As he sneaks out, he’s spotted by L’Antillais and Le Cure and another chase ensues.

No spoilers here. Diva is a cool thriller that stands out for its European flair when compared to the straight shooting Cutter’s Way and Thief. Diva is filled with emotional and visual ebbs and flows, where even the smaller, somewhat inconsequential scenes decompress the film into a methodically paced thriller but reveal their importance later on. Beineix’s direction combined with the beautiful camera work and seamless edits (especially the cuts to music) assemble each scene like perfectly placed pieces of a puzzle. The script’s two levels of intrigue from Nadia’s recording and Jules’ bootleg give the film a constant energy and motion without being overbearing, and keep the audience guessing as to who will get to Jules first and who he can truly trust. Analog was never cooler.

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (March)

March

Diva (3/11/81)
Modern Romance (3/13/81)
Three Brothers (3/19/81)
Cutter’s Way (3/20/81)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (3/20/81)
Thief (3/27/81)

Continuing our retrospective on the films of 1981, the most underrated year of cinema, March 1981 could be considered the month of Noir, with two American neo-noir thrillers (Cutter’s Way and Thief), an 80’s period remake of a 1940’s film noir classic (The Postman Always Rings Twice), and an edgy French neo-noir film that had a cool contemporary 80’s sheen (Diva). Rounding out the month’s notable films were a Rom-Com for neurotics directed by and starring Albert Brooks (Modern Romance), and an Italian drama that was Italy’s submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Film (Three Brothers).

Two films that opened on March 13 and made the top 5 in opening box office for March 1981 were the romantic comedy Back Roads starring Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones, and the horror film The Funhouse directed by Tobe Hooper which earned $3 million and $2.7 million respectively that weekend. But while those numbers were respectable for under 1000 theaters, ultimately they don’t make the notable list for 1981. Field and Jones show great chemistry in Back Roads, in which they play a prostitute and down on his luck ex-boxer who are forced to travel from Alabama to California with limited funds and even less patience for each other. It’s a well crafted film and grossed over $11 million, but is ultimately what you would expect of the genre, and the average story is only elevated by the talents of the leads. The Funhouse is a Tobe Hooper film that seems to have slipped through the cracks over time. The man who brought Leatherface to the screen with 1974’s classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which is still one of the all time great movie titles) takes us inside a nefarious carnival as four teenagers on a double date decide to stick around the funhouse after closing time, and are trapped and pursued after they witness one of the carnies (dressed as Frankenstein) murder the fortune teller. Compared to 1981’s earlier horror releases The Funhouse has better production value, but ultimately it’s the slow pace and lack of suspense that make the film middle rate at best.

Modern Romance (also released on March 13, 1981) is a film about how not to be in a relationship. Film editor Robert Cole (Albert Brooks) puts himself through constant angst and mental torture over his relationship with Mary (Kathryn Harrold). He falls into the traps of overthinking and “grass is greener” syndrome at the expense of Mary’s patience and devotion, making him more of a partner that constantly wears you down than lifts you up. With each scene in the film the audience can recognize Robert in someone they know (or even themselves), and throughout the break ups and rebounds he really has no one to blame but himself. Sometimes you just need to make a choice and run with it. Despite Robert’s cringe worthy behavior (wrapped in Albert Brooks’ classic comedic style), Modern Romance is a romantic comedy that people can relate to more than the traditional romance films the genre is better known for. Looking deeper into the film’s title, Modern Romance is a reflection on the changes in lifestyles, dynamics and subsequently romance itself at the dawn of the 80’s, making it less about love shared by two people and more about what two individuals bring into “the relationship.”

Director Bob Rafelson’s remake of 1946’s film noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice (released on March 20) is one of the intriguing films of 1981. It was actually the fourth film adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1934 novel of the same title, but for the purpose of simplicity its reference as a remake in this review will be against the 1946 version directed by Tay Garnett. Every remake has to balance respecting the original film and standing on its own: a shot for shot remake can fall flat, and veering too much from the original plot where the only similarity is a shared title defeats the purpose of a remake altogether. 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice stars Jack Nicholson as Frank Chambers, a Depression era drifter who takes a job at a California rest stop owned by Nick Papadakis (John Colicos) and his younger wife Cora (Jessica Lange). Frank and Cora begin a torrid affair and soon plot to kill Nick and collect on his $10,000 life insurance policy. The plot is mostly faithful to the 1946 film that starred John Garfield as Frank and Lana Turner as Cora, it has a strong script by David Mamet, atmospheric cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist, and raw sensuality that Nicholson and Lange bring to their roles. And there lies the dilemma with 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice: the individual elements are well done and the finished film is a solid production, but it’s debatable as to whether it justified a remake (it earned $12 domestic and an additional $32 million internationally). And this debate is part of the reason it’s included in my list of notable films of 1981. Had 1981’s The Postman Always Rings Twice not been a remake of one of the classic examples of film noir it actually could have stood on its own, though it may not have qualified as noir or neo-noir but rather as a period thriller. Movie fans should see this film not only to compare the 1946 and 1981 versions, but also the previous international adaptations Le Dernier Tournant (France, 1939) and Ossessione (Italy, 1943) as a study on the place remakes have in cinema.

Three Brothers (aka Tre Fratelli), directed by Francesco Rosi is a drama about the lives of three brothers who travel from their separate lives in Rome, Naples and Turin to their rural southern hometown upon the passing of their mother. The oldest son Raffaele (Philippe Noiret), is a judge torn over taking on a case that could cost him his life, Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who also plays the role of their father in his younger years) is a counselor for troubled youths, and Nicola (Michele Placido) is a factory worker dealing with a failing marriage. Time in the shared bedroom of their childhood home gives them an opportunity to reconnect and reevaluate their current circumstances and what lies next for them. The film’s pace is as tranquil as the Southern countryside, and the weight of the burdens on the three brothers’ shoulders is occasionally lifted by sentimental flashbacks to the early years of their parents marriage. This film is as much a meditation as it is a drama, not on mourning but on the stages of life, the roads taken, and the complications that arise with adulthood. Sometimes, as in the case of the tre fratelli, you just need to go back home for awhile.

Cutter’s Way

Release Date: March 20, 1981 (as Cutter and Bone)
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Heard, Lisa Eichhorn, Ann Dusenberry
Directed by Ivan Passer, Screenplay by Jeffrey Alan Fiskin (based by the book Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg), Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth

Cutter’s Way, Directed by Ivan Passer and based on Newton Thornburg’s novel Cutter and Bone, is a largely forgotten film that deserves to be rediscovered. Having never seen or heard of Cutter’s Way prior to this year (its currently streaming on Tubi and PlutoTV), I purposely didn’t do any research on the film prior to screening it. So it was cool to go into a screening completely unaware of what to expect, and Cutter’s Way hooked me in from the opening scenes with a tight story, subtle but atmospheric cinematography and memorable performances by Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn.

Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) is an underachiever drifting through life half-heartedly selling yachts for his friend’s company and barely satisfying the married women of Santa Barbara. His good looks only get him so far, and his Austin-Healey that’s seen better days can barely get him across town. On a rainy night after a forgettable tryst at a local hotel, Bone’s car breaks down on a dark side street. He sees a car stop behind him and the driver dump something in a trash can. As Bone gets out of his car to ask for help, he’s nearly run down by the silhouetted driver. Bone glances back at the trash can but the rain picks up, and he quickly walks away without seeing a woman’s lifeless legs visibly sticking out of the trash can.

Bone finds his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard) at a local watering hole. Cutter, a Vietnam veteran who lost an eye, arm and leg in the war, sucks the air our of the bar with his obnoxious tongue at a table of politely quiet patrons, until a racist quip lands him one step away from getting his ass kicked by two nearby pool players. But as he’s likely done many times before, Bone talks the situation down and the offended parties walk away. Bone takes Cutter’s keys and drives to Cutter’s house, where the all too patient Mo (Lisa Eichhorn, playing the role as more martyr than saint) drinks her way through her marriage to Cutter. As they share a freshly opened bottle of vodka, Mo hardly convinces Bone that she’s actually happy and would have still married Cutter had Bone not kept drifting in an out of her life.

The next morning two sanitation workers find the bloodied body of a young woman in the garbage can. With Bone’s Austin-Healey parked just ahead, detectives pay him a visit at Cutter’s house and haul him in for questioning. After six hours of interrogation and facing the 17 year old victim’s sister, Valerie Duran (played by Ann Dusenberry), Bone is released and is met at the city’s founder’s day parade by Mo and a jovial Alex who’s relishing Bone’s picture on the front page of the newspaper as the murder suspect. As they watch the parade, Bone recognizes one of the participants, an older man with dark sunglasses, as the man he saw in the alley the night before. Cutter drags him through the parade to get a better look at him and tells Bone it’s J.J. Cord, one of the pillars of Santa Monica society.

Afterwards at a diner, Cutter continues to question Bone to see if his story aligns with the recently reported event of Cord’s car found mysteriously burned the night before, shortly after Bone would have seen it in the alley. Bone answers with every reason possible why it’s unlikely Cord killed the Valerie’s sister. As far as he’s concerned, he’s told the police everything he saw and what he told them isn’t changing. When Cutter and Valerie ambush Bone the next morning, they read him a magazine interview of Cord in which he openly mentioned occasionally picking up hitchhikers. Bone isn’t budging, even when they tell him they visited a nearby gas station where the attendant told them a man resembling Cord had bought two cans of gasoline in the middle of the night, which he could have used to set fire to his car and destroy evidence of the murder. But their not so subtle conversation at the restaurant is overheard by Cord’s wife (played by Patricia Donahue), whose composure and silence should not be confused with complacency.

Cutter devises a plan for the three of them to write an extortion note for Bone to deliver to Cort’s office. But rather than threaten Cord for hush money, their plan is to get him to incriminate himself with a payoff so they can turn him into the police. Despite Bone’s reluctance to follow through on Cutter’s crazy idea, there’s a part of him that feels the obligation to bring the girl’s murderer to justice. But a man like Cord, played with an eerie, steely coolness by Stephen Elliott, didn’t get to his place in life by giving relevance to the demands of the little people. And they learn the hard way that a position of power is the greatest advantage in spite of the truth.

No spoilers here. Cutter’s Way keeps the audience guessing whether Alex Cutter is pursuing justice or a conspiracy theory, and if the obstacles he and Bone face are coincidence or messages to back off. But these questions go deeper when we learn that Cutter was also a child of privilege who grew up in the same circles as J.J. Cord, a man known for using questionable and aggressive business tactics to get what he wants. Are Cutter’s ramblings the product of his disillusioned, post Vietnam War outlook on life, or those of a privileged rich boy with a perpetual lack of accountability? Is he seeking to take down Cord as a personal vendetta, or as a statement against the upbringing he’s now ashamed of?

Conversely Richard Bone is driven in his lack of action by self preservation. Unlike Cutter he has no personal vendettas or principles that drive him, but there is a part of him that’s desperate to break from an underachieving life stuck in a frustrating state of neutral which, like his broken down Austin-Healey, fails to move him forward.

Screenwriter Jeffrey Alan Fiskin crafted a straightforward story that isn’t convoluted by overlapping plots or overdone backstory. Ivan Passer’s direction is subtle and effective in bringing classic film noir elements to a contemporary 80’s setting, expertly cut by editor Caroline Ferriol (The Stunt Man, 9 ½ Weeks, The Seventh Sign) and enveloped by a haunting score by Jack Nitzche (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Stand By Me). As the opening credits rolled, one name that caught my attention was that of cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, who at the time of filming Cutter’s Way was one year away from shooting the incredible Blade Runner. Cronenweth took the simple, contemporary story and locations of Cutter’s Way and elevated them on celluloid to the point where you can almost feel the early morning mist on the screen.

But Cutter’s Way should be best remembered by the performances of Bridges, Heard (in a standout performance that should have propelled him to leading man status) and the criminally underrated Lisa Eichhorn as the tragic Mo, who in the simple act of asking Bone to pass a bottle, projects the hurt in her eyes, the weight on her shoulders and her misguided love for Cutter. If not for anything else, see this movie for her performance alone.

Next up: We continue revisiting March 1981 with reviews of Michael Mann’s Thief starring James Caan and the French thriller Diva directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix.

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Cloak and Dagger #1 (Marvel Comics, October 1983)

In this episode we’ll take a look back at Cloak and Dagger #1 that hit the spinner racks on July 12, 1983.

Cloak and Dagger #1 can be found in Cloak and Dagger: Child of Darkness, Child of Light on Amazon and ComiXology.  As an Amazon affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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Jon Sable Freelance #1 (First Comics, June 1983)

In this episode we’ll take a look back at Mike Grell’s Jon Sable Freelance #1 that hit the spinner racks on February 19, 1983.

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Jon Sable Freelance #1 can be found in the Jon Sable Freelance Omnibus #1 on Amazon.  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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Micronauts #1 (Marvel Comics, January 1979)

In this episode we’ll take a look back at the first issue of Marvel Comics Micronauts that hit the spinner racks on September 19, 1978.

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Fante’s Inferno On YouTube!

Fante’s Inferno now has a YouTube channel and my first video has published!

Episode 1 will post this week.  Please check it out and subscribe!

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Alien Legion #1 (1984)

Alien Legion 1 Cover

Alien Legion #1 (Epic Comics – April 1984) Copyright Carl Potts

When Marvel Comics launched its Epic Comics creator-owned line of titles in 1982, I had a tough time trying to decide which of the new titles would be included in my monthly comic book budget.  Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar and Steve Englehart’s Coyote were occasional purchases, but there was one Epic title that stood out the most for me starting with issue #1 and would be my top purchase with each new issue: 1984’s Alien Legion by the creative team of Carl Potts, Alan Zelenetz, Frank Cirocco and Terry Austin.

Frank Cirocco’s painted cover for Alien Legion #1 drew me in from the first moment I saw it on the spinner rack of my local comic shop. The $2.00 cover price was a bit steep for me back then considering the going rate for most Marvel and DC titles on my purchase list was $.60. But at 48 pages on higher quality paper (I wish today’s comics were printed on Baxter paper!), it was worth sacrificing the two additional titles I could have bought. Though a recent look back at my purchases shows I still had a decent comics haul that month.

The inside cover’s “state of the galaxy” does a great job setting up the first story by describing the roles of the governing body, the TOPHAN Galactic Union (TGU), and the Alien Legion, mercenaries comprised of different races from throughout the Union. The TGU is made up of elected officials from the Thermor, Ophides and Auron galaxies (hence TOPHAN) with established treaties, trade agreements and peacekeeping responsibilities throughout the galaxy. The Alien Legion are the grunts sent in for the dirty work. Page one of issue #1 sums them up best: “Footsloggers and soldiers of fortune, priests and poets, killers and cads – they fight for a future Galarchy, for cash, a cause, for the thrill of adventure. Legionnaires live rough and they die hard, tough as tungsten and loyal to the dirty end.” How could I not buy this issue off the rack?

The “dossiers” of six of the main legionnaires give each of their backgrounds: Torie Montroc, the human university graduate forced to join by his wealthy father in order to earn a trust fund; Sarigar, the serpentine alien leader of the unit featured in the title; Jugger Grimrod, the anti-social weapons expert; Durge, the former wrestler known for his bravery; Meico, the kind-hearted former refugee; and Torqa Dun, the former bureaucrat who’s in it for the money more than the honor of service.

Alien Legion 1

Alien Legion #1 (Epic Comics April 1984) – Copyright Carl Potts

The story begins in space when a Legion ship, en route to disrupt an illegal mining operation on the nearby moon Wedifact IV, is sneak attacked by a squadron of enemy Harkilons. The Legion ship, badly damaged, fights back just long enough for two shuttles (Vector and Nomad) to escape to their destination. But despite the destruction of the main ship and the loss of half of their colleagues, the surviving 28 legionnaires still have a job to do.

Lieutenant Montroc, piloting Nomad, and Vector’s Lieutenant Birkh confirm their orders from Captain Sarigar: observe the operation from the air, then rendezvous with Captains Sarigar and Phyte to plan further action. Birkh’s team spots the illegal mining operation, but what looks to be a routine plan is thrown off when the mine’s defense battery knocks out Vector shuttle, crash landing it to the surface.

Before Birkh’s team can even assess their surroundings, they’re ambushed by rogue miners led by Prinn, who waste no time shooting to kill. Birkh curses the fact the legionnaires can’t properly fight back as their regulation weapons were replaced by eco-friendly dart guns in order not to environmentally impact the planet. Prinn, hardly sympathetic to the ecological impact of his mining operation, kills Birkh. The 28 are now down to 14.

Alien Legion 2

Alien Legion #1 (Epic Comics April 1984) – Copyright Carl Potts

Back at Tophan Galactic Union headquarters, Legion representatives are given little support by the committee members, who are more concerned with the ecological preservation of Wedifact IV and its species of rathosaurs over the military implications of the Harkilon empire breaking an already fragile peace. The representatives, ambivalent to the military in general, simply want the legionnaires to fulfill their mission of knocking out the pirate mining outpost with as little environmental consequences as possible, regardless of the Legion’s losses.

Back on Wedifact IV Montroc leads his seven man squad through the jungle and finds Birkh’s team dead in a clearing. As the remaining legionnaires bury and collect the dogtags of the fallen, Badj sneaks off on his own to observe the rathosaurs. Only they are not living uninterrupted in their natural habitat, they’ve been trained by the pirates to do their manual labor.  Montroc’s job isn’t made any easier by infighting among the men, but a crack of Sarigar’s serpentine tail quickly restores order.

The remaining legionnaires move in on Prinn’s mining operation with a nighttime raid. The idealistic Montroc asks Sarigar if it’s worth the risk, but Sarigar quickly reminds him that as legionnaires it’s about following the orders. When their stealth attempt to breach the mine fails, it’s the legionnaires versus the entire camp. With the odds against them and nothing more than dart guns, the legionnaires ignore their disadvantage and give it everything they’ve got. Prinn uses his lackeys to save his own skin, which leads to a surprise reveal.

No spoilers here. Potts and Zelenetz crafted a fantastic story that does a great job introducing the major characters.  Penciller Frank Cirocco and inker Terry Austin complemented each other perfectly on their Alien Legion run.  Austin is one of a handful of inkers who’s lines worked amazingly with many pencillers: Howard Chaykin, Paul Smith and of course, John Byrne to name a few.  But his all too brief work with Frank Cirocco on the pages of Alien Legion is my favorite of his penciller/inker collaborations.  I’m the proud owner of three original Terry Austin inked pages, but it’s my Cirocco/Austin page from Alien Legion #4 that is my favorite of my original comic art collection.  The crisp lines make me wish they worked on more Alien Legion issues and a broader range of stories together.

After reading Alien Legion #1, it was a tough wait until the next issue.  But great writing, great characters, and top notch art always made subsequent issues worth the wait.  Even thirty five years later, these footsloggers are well worth revisiting.  Long live the Legion!

Alien Legion #1 can be found in the Alien Legion Omnibus Volume 1 on Amazon and Comixology.  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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