Tag Archives: 1981

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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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (January and February)

January

The first month in what was to be a very notable year for film wasn’t exactly…well, notable. January was generally known as one of the two months of the calendar year (along with August) in which studios dumped their worst films for release, and January 1981 was no exception to this tradition. That month’s schedule of forgettable low budget horror movies (Scream, Blood Beach) and under performing wide releases (The Incredible Shrinking Woman) hardly forecast what would turn into a solid year of cinema.

Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (released January 30) grossed $20 million and is probably the most remembered film from that month, but in my opinion it doesn’t crack the list of notable films of 1981. Based on 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Lily Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a suburban wife and mother whose body can’t stop shrinking due to exposure to chemicals in household products. Despite the film being a solid showcase of Lily Tomlin’s talent in which she plays several characters, ultimately the film doesn’t hold up due to an uneven string of scenes that parody an America dominated by advertising and consumerism too hard and to the point of caricature where an audience isn’t engaged in the message or the characters.

In contrast, director Robert Butler’s lower budget comedy Underground Aces, with an ensemble cast that includes Dirk Benedict, T.K. Carter, Melanie Griffith and Robert Hegyes, hasn’t exactly made its way up to cult status over the last forty years. It’s one of the forgotten films of 1981 (think 1976’s Car Wash but set in the valet garage of a hotel), but a surprisingly well crafted comedy with a style and humor that’s of its time, although some elements of Underground Aces’ story and characters would not hold up by today’s standards. Worth noting: cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth would go on to DP several classic films of the 1980’s: Blue Thunder, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me and The Running Man.

Scanners

Release Date: January 14, 1981
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neal, Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan
Cinematography by Mark Irwin, Edited by Ronald Sanders

The first standout film of 1981 is David Cronenberg’s Scanners, which premiered in the U.S. on January 14th. Cronenberg’s two previous films ranged from the gory horror of 1977’s Rabid to the psychological terror of 1979’s The Brood. 1981’s Scanners is a “psionic” thriller that is heavy on drama and suspense but with a controlled, methodical style. That’s not to say that Scanners is a subdued film, as evidenced by car chases, gun fights and just the right amount of gory special effects including a memorable head explosion. Cronenberg injects an old school style of mystery and suspense, and ramps up the tension with charged scenes involving the scanners telekinetic power, represented primarily by a heavy musical score, sound effects and the talents of the cast.

Scanners begins with a disheveled and disturbed Cameron Vale (played by Steven Lack) acting erratically in a shopping mall, taking other people’s cigarettes and food without giving any thought to his behavior or their stares. But when he hears a woman’s dismissive comments about him he projects a telepathic burst that causes her to seizure but also exposes him to the undercover agents tasked with finding his kind. He’s knocked out by a tranquilizer dart, and wakes up strapped to a bed in a research facility located in an abandoned industrial building which is run by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who informs Cameron that he is a scanner, a telepath capable of reading, controlling and destroying people’s minds. Dr. Ruth (yes, Dr. Ruth…) wants Cameron to stay at the facility as one of his subjects to teach him to use and control his telekinetic power.

In an auditorium at the company ConSec, a presenter announces he will telekinetically scan each member of the audience. He warns them of the adverse side effects of scanning, but one man, Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) agrees to be the first subject and joins him in front of the audience. Revok calmly goes along by thinking of something personal for the presenter to telepathically connect to, but it’s clear that Revok is more in control of the scan, putting them in a telepathic tug of war that leads to the presenter’s head exploding. Revok is quickly taken at gunpoint, but subtly “scans” a doctor to inject a tranquilizer into his own hand rather than Revok’s. Shortly after, as Revok pretends to be out cold in the back of a ConSec car, he telepathically controls the driver of one of the company vehicles to crash, which creates a diversion and allows him to control and overpower his captors in order to escape.

These events prompt ConSec’s new head of security Greg Keller to propose dropping the scanner program which Dr. Ruth is heading. According to Ruth, the list of 236 known scanners in their program has been compromised by an underground, subversive scanner group led by Revok. Ruth recruits Cameron to infiltrate the subversive scanners, but Keller’s concerns run deeper than skepticism, and his self interests push him to secretly meet with a yet to be revealed contact that is meant to thwart Cameron’s efforts.

No spoilers here. Despite the low tech approach to many of the telepathic elements of the film, Cronenberg wrote and directed an engaging story with cinematography by Mark Irwin (The Dead Zone, Dumb and Dumber, Old School) and editing by Ronald Sanders (The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch). At times Cronenberg’s script can be a little too heavy on the exposition and dialogue, and the low tech, music heavy telepathic sequences take a little getting used to (and some suspension of disbelief), but Scanners is a solid thriller that gets into your head, with Cronenberg effectively representing the cacophony in Cameron’s mind and the scanners’ desperation for answers and control.

February

February 1981 had more notable films than the anemic month of January, bringing out a police drama (Fort Apache, The Bronx), a thriller (Eyewitness), a beloved international road movie (Goodbye Pork Pie), and an under appreciated animated film (American Pop). But despite the quality of these releases, the overall U.S. box office continued to lag save for Fort Apache, The Bronx’s $29 million domestic gross. The Canadian horror film My Bloody Valentine qualifies as a guilty pleasure, and two other films released in February 1981, the underwhelming action thriller Sphinx directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Poseidon Adventure) and the misguided comedy reboot Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen starring Peter Ustinov in the title role (which even back then was cringeworthy and offensive), failed to meet to expectations and were the bombs of the month.

My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka, is set in a small mining town where a deranged killer has returned after twenty years to go on a killing spree leading up to Valentine’s Day. The killer, a former miner who lost his mind and resorted to cannibalism to survive a cave in, leaves boxes of candy with the hearts of his victims and warnings to cancel the town’s first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. The mayor and police chief cancel the dance to thwart the killer’s promised bloodbath, but a group young of miners and their girlfriends won’t have their night taken from them and hold their own party at the mine. And as you would expect, they’re taken out one by one. This film is filled with typical horror tropes (the legend of a local killer, the younger generation not taking it seriously and just looking to have a good time, shots from the killer’s POV, messages left with his latest victims warning of future killings) but solid cinematography, direction and editing resulting in a higher production value than January’s painful to watch Scream. But the film’s strong start quickly devolves in the second act due to the script’s one dimensional characters and weak dialogue that plays more like a horror spoof forty years later. And while not making the notable list for 1981 My Bloody Valentine could be a guilty pleasure in a horror movie filled night with friends.

New Zealand’s classic road comedy Goodbye Pork Pie directed by Geoff Murphy is a film that’s sadly off the radar in the U.S. due to the fact it’s incredibly hard to find on streaming services and DVD. But in spite of this, it’s a film that I vividly remember and enjoyed watching on cable TV around 1983, and I was happy to find Goodbye Pork Pie on the list of 1981’s releases for me to include in this retrospective. The film begins with Gerry (Kelly Johnson) using the money and ID from a dropped wallet to rent (technically steal) a car and drive to Auckland. While on the road in the film’s classic yellow Mini, Gerry picks up the heartbroken John (Tony Barry) who is trying to get to Invercargill to win back his girlfriend Sue (Shirley Gruar). Police chases and hilarity ensue. This is exactly the type of film I love to find: a low budget film with a fun story, memorable characters, and cinematography that makes the most of its locations. The full version of Goodbye Pork Pie is available here.

Eyewitness directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep, Breaking Away, Krull) and starring Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt is February 1981’s sleeper pick. Hurt plays Daryll Deever, an office building janitor who witnesses the aftermath of a gang style hit on a Vietnamese businessman during his cleaning rounds. He tries to stay out of the investigation but ambitious television reporter Tony Sokolow (played by Weaver) tries to get the story out of him. It’s a classic 80s thriller with noir-ish tones and a straightforward plot that doesn’t overachieve. And though it didn’t recoup its $8.5 million budget, it’s still an enjoyable thriller with a great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer and James Woods.

American Pop is another great example of director Ralph Bakshi’s incredible animation in a career that includes Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and The Lord of the Rings. American Pop is a journey through American music history told through the lives of four generations of a New York family navigating their way through the tenements of 1911 to the mean streets of the 1970s. Bakshi’s brings back the rotoscope animation style that he used in 1978’s classic The Lord of the Rings, which perfectly complements this musical drama. To this day American Pop is a step above his other non-fantasy films Heavy Traffic and Hey Good Lookin’ and is considered one of Bakshi’s best works even if it didn’t find an audience during its initial release. I hesitate to call American Pop a rediscovered classic because of how revered it is among animation fans forty years later. It’s a film worth seeking as a testament to great traditional animation and the genius and talent of Ralph Bakshi.

Fort Apache, The Bronx

Release Date: February 6, 1981
Starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier
Directed by Daniel Petrie, written by Heywood Gould
Cinematography by John Alcott, Edited by Rita Roland

Released on February 6th 1981, director Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, The Bronx is a police drama from the era of the “good old bad old days” of early 80’s New York City, with the burned out buildings and demolished blocks of the Bronx, the inescapable graffiti, and the lack of services needed to keep the city clean and safe. The film’s opening title makes it clear the film is from the perspective of the police officers to prepare the audience for a warts and all portrayal of their jobs and their beat.

The film begins with two officers sitting in their patrol car on duty in an industrial part of the Bronx. They’re approached by prostitute Charlotte (Pam Grier) who tries to sweet talk them into some business but they politely decline. But she has other things in mind as she pulls out a revolver and shoots them dead in their car. Several local kids come out of the abandoned storefronts and buildings and quickly loot the dead bodies for their guns and badges.

At the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct, seventeen year veteran officer Murphy (Paul Newman) shows his young partner officer Corelli (Ken Wahl) the ropes, and explains how the borough gets notoriety based on the cop killings and insurance fires shown on the news. They respond to a suicidal tenant in an apartment building, grabbing him just as he is about to jump off the roof, and take him to local hospital despite the fact it doesn’t have a psych ward. Nurse Isabella (Rachel Ticotin) processes him and catches the eye of the older Murphy. As Murphy and Corelli cruise for a lunch spot, they spot a purse snatcher and chase him through the park. The fortysomething Murphy can’t catch up to him and he gets away. Murphy’s colleague officer Morgan (Danny Aiello) asks why he didn’t just shoot the purse snatcher since they could have dropped a knife on him and called it self defense. Murphy disregards the advice, but not without a tinge of disgust.

Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) is retiring from the 41st Precinct and is replaced by the “by the book” Captain Connolly (Ed Asner). Connolly arrives for his first day on the job in a precinct that’s lacking in discipline, starting with the desk sergeant who when chastised for not screening visitors, informs Connolly that he’s 22 years on the job and is happy to retire at half pension before he takes any crap from him. As the jaded Captain Dugan fills him in on the 41st Precinct (dubbed Fort Apache for being an outpost in hostile territory) Connolly is more interested in which officers are corrupt and the questionable disability claims and absences, calling Dugan out on the precinct’s lack of motivation. Dugan refuses to take the blame for the city’s failures that led to the borough’s struggles with high unemployment and crime, and wishes Connolly the best.

Murphy is the over the hill cop that should have moved up higher in the force. Corelli is the young ambitious cop who is embracing the changes of the 80s, taking in self help books and wanting to work his way up to detective. They spot a pimp beating up Charlotte and separate them, telling them to keep their drama off the street. The pimp pulls out a few bills as a thank you, but Murphy makes it clear he won’t accept the payoff by taking it out on his luxury car. Murphy tells Corelli he won’t be owned over a couple of bucks, but Corelli reminds him they live in a world they didn’t make.

Corelli and Murphy respond to an ambulance call but the building they’re called to is dark and looks abandoned, raising their suspicion. They knock on a family’s door and they’re sent to the back of a crowded, dark apartment to a sick girl’s bedroom. Only she’s not sick: she’s having a baby. She’s 13 and hid it from her family but now she’s in labor. Murphy and Corelli close the bedroom door and Murphy, who’s been through this before, talks her through the delivery. They bring the young girl and her newborn to the hospital, where Murphy tells Isabella that was his 17th delivery. She invites him to come back at the end of her shift to take her for a drink.

Murphy takes Isabella to a local bar frequented by the precinct, but he’s unable to get her to open up about herself. Murphy tells her that he made detective once, but lost his position when a criminal he busted got off light and his lawyer got Murphy bumped back down to beat cop. He could stop a hood, but not a lawyer. They head back to his place, but he soon realizes Isabella isn’t exactly who he thought she was.

Murphy is no boy scout, but his years on the force has built in him a sense of commitment to the job and the community he serves, even if it is tempered by jaded wisdom. He’s prone to voicing his opinions a little too strongly, not endearing him to Captain Connolly, but doesn’t rock the boat with his fellow officers. But when he and Corelli witness a fellow officer cross the line and murder an innocent bystander, the game changes and Murphy is forced to decide whether or not to inform on him.

No spoilers here. Fort Apache, The Bronx is a non-stop ride along with a strong cast down to the character actors and a story that shows the police as outsiders in the borough they’re tasked to protect. Director Daniel Petrie directed television from the 50’s through the 70’s, and at times Fort Apache, The Bronx feels less cinematic and more in the style of a television episode, but he keeps the drama high both inside the 41st Precinct and in the streets of the Bronx. Cinematographer John Alcott’s camera work is more understated than his previous work on Barry Lyndon and The Shining, but he films the urban landscape honestly and gets the most out of each shot. Unfortunately a few of the characters are over the top, and the story develops too many plot points to all be adequately resolved in the third act, making me wish there was an additional thirty minutes in the film to flesh out more of the characters and their motivations, especially Pam Grier’s enigmatic Charlotte whose actions in the opening scene set the tone for the film. But at the end of the day, this film belongs to Paul Newman, who plays the tired, jaded Murphy with a steely eyed pathos that draws you in to one of the decade’s better cop dramas.

So two months into 1981’s underrated year of film, there are five notable films to revisit and rediscover. Things started to pick up in March with films like Thief, Diva and Cutter’s Way, which will be covered in our next post!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981

It’s been way too long since the last film retrospective appeared on Fante’s Inferno. My previous posts on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and 1984 were a lot of fun to write, and even more fun to research. But with each year that passed since my last retrospective in 2014, I kept telling myself to get started on the next one, only to have life get in the way of revisiting the films of the Summer of 1985 and onward. So to find the subject of my next film retrospective, I reviewed the list of film releases from 35 and 40 years ago (to stay within my unofficial 80s timeline) to revisit the classics of that era but more importantly to rediscover some forgotten gems.

I initially planned on writing a retrospective on the films of the Summer of 1981, which in my opinion had a very solid lineup. But 1981 was also the year that some of my all time favorite films were released, namely John Boorman’s Excalibur and Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (both of which are still in my personal top ten list of favorite films). Over the years I’ve reviewed several films from 1981 on this site (The Hand, The Last Chase, Gregory’s Girl, Southern Comfort and Time Bandits), so looking over the entire year’s film releases made me realize that 1981 as a whole had a strong mix of classics, cult favorites, guilty pleasures, and a few underrated and forgotten films that deserve to be revisited. Many of them can be found on streaming services today, which allowed me to dig deeper into that year’s lineup and rewatch a few of the less remembered films for the first time in four decades.

But researching this cinematic year led to a very surprising and unexpected opinion: that 1981 is one of the most underrated years of cinema, not only of the 1980s, but of the last 50 years.

I know, I know, that’s a bold statement. But I wrote “underrated” and not “best” for a reason. And while 1939 is considered the definitive “Best Year of Movies,” two recent books add the films of 1962 and 1999 to the debate, and in my opinion 1994 wasn’t too shabby either. Without question the films of 1939 still hold the crown of the greatest cinematic year due to their classic, enduring qualities and the reverence with which they are held to this day. And while only a small handful of films from 1981 could be considered true classics today, the fact that many of the lesser known films from that year are still very enjoyable forty years later legitimately puts 1981 in the category of “underrated” and well worth another look.

It’s safe to say none of the films of 1981 have reached the stature of 1972’s The Godfather, though Raiders of the Lost Ark is one film from 1981 that has earned both classic and blockbuster status along the lines of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and was the highest grossing film that year. But two of 1981’s Oscar winners Reds and Chariots of Fire probably don’t get watched with the same frequency these days. If you look at the films of 1972, 1975 or 1977, you’ll see a number of great films (for example 1972 also had Deliverance, Cabaret, and Jeremiah Johnson; 1975 included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Three Days of the Condor; and 1977 included Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saturday Night Fever and A Bridge Too Far), but in my opinion 1981 pulls ahead in terms of the consistency in the quality of a lot of films across all genres, even the hidden gems and cult favorites.

That’s not to say there weren’t any clunkers or outright bombs that year. For every Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond and Chariot of Fire, there was Sphinx, Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, and the best example of the worst type of film: Going Ape! Like any other cinematic year before or since, there are films that have been forgotten for good reason. But others may also fall into the category of “badly made but fun to watch.” One thing I never do when I revisit an older film is to judge it by today’s standards with regard to effects, cinematography, etc. I’ll mentally turn the clock back and view a film and judge it on its merits of the time. Easier said than done with some films, but I choose to give each of these a fair shake even if some were intended as B movies and lacking in production value. Even some of the lowest budget horror or action films can still be enjoyable in their own right.

Let’s take a look at some of the notable films of 1981:

January to March:
Scanners
Fort Apache The Bronx
Diva
Goodbye Pork Pie
Modern Romance
American Pop
Eyewitness
Cutter’s Way
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Thief

April to June:
Atlantic City
Nighthawks
Excalibur
The Howling
Knightriders
The Hand
Ms. 45
Bustin’ Loose
The Four Seasons
The Last Chase
Gregory’s Girl
Cheech & Chong’s Nice Dreams
Clash of the Titans
History of the World: Part I
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Cannonball Run
Superman II
Dragonslayer
For Your Eyes Only
Stripes

July to September
The Decline of Western Civilization
Escape from New York
Arthur
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Wolfen
Escape to Victory
Gallipoli
Heavy Metal
An American Werewolf in London
Prince of the City
Body Heat
Continental Divide
Das Boot
Raggedy Man
Southern Comfort
True Confessions

October to December
Enter the Ninja
My Dinner with Andre
The Evil Dead
Time Bandits
Ragtime
Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Four Friends
Pennies From Heaven
Absence of Malice
Chariots of Fire
Taps
Quest for Fire
On Golden Pond
Reds

This list will likely bring out comments defending some of the less successful films, questioning their inclusion as “notable,” or debating whether some of the acclaimed films of that year even hold up today. A few additional titles from 1981 might also be included in this retrospective. I look forward to a spirited discussion.

First up in this retrospective will be the films of January through March of 1981!

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Southern Comfort (1981)

Release Date: September 25, 1981
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, Brion James, Peter Coyote
Written by: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Directed by: Walter Hill

I love rediscovering an obscure film from the 80’s that still hits on all cylinders decades later.  When my family first got cable TV in 1981 it gave me exposure to quality (and some not so quality) films that I normally would not have been introduced to at our local cinemas.  Southern Comfort, directed by Walter Hill, is one of those great films that was easy to find on cable TV back then but became harder to find over the years.  With the film’s recent availability on Amazon Prime, it was time to revisit it.

Walter Hill is best known for The Warriors and 48 Hours, but his impressive list of films includes hard hitting dramas (Hard Times, The Driver), a beloved comedy (Brewster’s Millions), an action film (Red Heat) and less conventional dramas like the neo-noir Streets of Fire and blues themed Faustian tale Crossroads.  But the 1981 drama/thriller Southern Comfort is a solid film that inexplicably slipped through the cracks over time despite an engaging story and great cast.

The film begins in 1973 Louisiana.  Army National Guardsmen are on maneuvers in the bayou.  Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) assembles a squad of eight men for a standard recon mission.  Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who wants to put in his time and get home to his wife.  Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) tries to lighten the mood by firing blank rounds from his machine gun at Poole’s second-in-command Sergeant Casper (played by Les Lannom), which shows the amount of respect they have for him (and also makes a viewer wonder why the surrounding troops didn’t respond to it as a threat – my one caveat with the film).  Spencer (Keith Carradine) boosts the men’s motivation when he tells them he has hired several prostitutes to wait for them at a rendezvous point at the end of their recon mission.

Several hours into the recon mission Captain Poole realizes their course has been blocked by a river that rose with the winter rains.  Their choice is to continue forward to find their rendezvous point or backtrack to base and start the recon all over again.  At a trapping post, faced with a river they are unable to cross and the entertainment waiting for them at their eventual rendezvous point, they “requisition” three canoes from local trappers who aren’t around to give permission.  At the suggestion of straight laced high school coach Bowden (played by Alan Autry but credited as Carlos Brown), the squad leaves one canoe behind with a note explaining where they will find the other canoes.  But despite the soldiers’ best intentions the trappers are not happy with a group of outsiders interfering with their property.

The group is halfway across the river when the French speaking Cajun trappers angrily make their presence known.  Reece (played by Fred Ward) manages to get a few rude words out in French.  Poole attempts to explain they’ll get their canoes back, but the situation spirals out of control when joker Stuckey fires a couple of dozen blank rounds at them.  The trappers, unaware they are blanks, return fire and shoot Poole in the head, killing him.  Leaderless and lost, the guardsmen now need to survive in unfamiliar territory without live ammunition.

Fear and infighting within the group set in.  Spencer reveals that Reese has his own box of live ammunition.  Casper orders him to turn it over to distribute among the squad but Reese is more than willing to give Casper a bullet to the head to keep his stash.  Hardin sneaks up behind Reese with a knife to his throat and the bullets are turned over.  Casper does his best to keep order and lead the squad, but despite his experience and knowledge of military procedure, he’s unable to command the respect of the men.

The next day they find the trappers cabin and capture the only inhabitant, a one-armed trapper (Brion James).  But the group has different ideas as to how their new prisoner should be treated.  After Simms (played by Franklyn Seales) cracks him across the jaw he’s unwilling to talk.  Bowden’s composure erodes and he’s hellbent on payback.  Oblivious to the supplies they could have collected, he sets the trapper’s cabin on fire and nearly kills all of them when a storage of dynamite goes off.  With even less live ammunition they continue through the bayou dragging both a prisoner and Poole’s lifeless body.  They can’t find the highway and they take it as a morbid sign when they encounter eight dead rabbits (one for each of them) hanging in their path.

Without a compass, Spencer and Casper disagree over which direction to go.  As they attempt to get their bearings, a group of hunting dogs attack them with Stuckey and Cribbs (played by T.K. Carter) getting the worst of it.  The squad is now the hunted, descending into fear, despair and paranoia with each deadly trap they encounter.  When they’re not feeling the presence of their hunters, the squad begins to turn on itself.  Bowden cracks and is tied up so as not to become a danger to himself and the squad.  Reese tries his own methods of interrogation on their prisoner which leads to a knife-wielding showdown with Hardin.  With no end to their ordeal in sight, Casper’s quoting of the manual finally turns the men against him and they follow Spencer.

No spoilers here.  Walter Hill’s direction and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s photography of the bayou puts the audience right in the middle of the squad’s nightmare.  It’s the portrayal of the “local’s” desire to protect their land and way of life that effectively brings out the growing fear and desperation of the guardsmen (a few shots are not for the squeamish).  It’s too easy to compare Southern Comfort to the critically acclaimed Deliverance (unfortunately even the film’s poster is guilty of this), but Southern Comfort stands on its own as a powerful psychological drama that keeps the audience engaged to the very end.

Southern Comfort is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon.  As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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The Hand (1981)

The Hand Movie Poster

Release Date: April 24, 1981
Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill, Rosemary Murphy, Mara Hobel
Written and Directed by Oliver Stone based on the novel The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandel

The horror genre is one that I seem to have under-represented in my film reviews and retrospectives over the years.  Nothing against the genre itself, I’ve just never felt the need to revisit any of the classics later in life, particularly slasher films.  Sure they were fun to watch the first time around, but for every Halloween and Friday the 13th, I preferred more psychological/supernatural films like Poltergeist.  But there was something about Oliver Stone’s 1981 film The Hand starring Michael Caine that grabbed me (no pun intended, I swear!) when I saw it was available for rent on Amazon this past weekend.  I vaguely remember watching it on cable in he early 80s, and over time I’ve associated The Hand with one of Michael Caine’s more questionable films.  But this time around I was interested to see if the overall film matched the level of talent associated with the production, namely Michael Caine’s acting, Oliver Stone’s direction and James Horner’s score.

Jonathan Lansdale (played by Michael Caine) is a successful cartoonist of the daily newspaper comic strip Mandro, a Conan the Barbarian style character.  He lives a quiet life in Vermont with his wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) and daughter Lizzie (Mara Hobel), but their life is too tranquil for Anne, who pushes Jonathan for a move to New York City.  He suspect she has other motives for the move, and when she drives him to the post office to mail the week’s Mandro comic strips to the syndicate she admits to him that her preference is that he stays in Vermont while she pursues her interests in New York.  An argument ensues and in the heat of emotion Anne makes an ill-timed attempt to pass a slow moving truck on a blind curve.  A car speeds towards them in the oncoming lane, but they are unable to merge back behind the truck due to an impatient driver behind them.  Jonathan sticks his arm out the passenger side window to get the driver to slow down and let them merge back behind the truck, but their car sideswipes the truck, severing Jonathan’s drawing hand.

Their attempt to find the severed hand in a field proves fruitless and Jonathan must make due with a prosthetic, his drawing career over.  Despite his inability to draw, Jonathan takes the change better than expected.  Late one night, unable to sleep, Jonathan sits at his drawing desk trying to draw Mandro with his left hand.  His concentration is broken when his cat goes berserk and jumps through a pane of glass.  Jonathan sees something busting in a pile of wood but takes it as something harmless.  In an act of closure, Jonathan visits the scene of the accident and walks through the field where his severed hand would have landed.  He finds his gold signet ring but not the remains of his hand, which is alive and hiding in the tall grass watching Jonathan.

For the moment Anne seems recommitted to him and they move to a SoHo loft in Manhattan.  When Jonathan meets with his agent Karen (Rosemary Murphy) to discuss the future of Mandro, she suggests taking on another artist to draw the strip while Jonathan continues to plot and write it.  He resists the idea at first, and tells her about an offer he received to teach at a community college in California.  Karen is skeptical, not only because she wants the strip to continue but because she knows once he is back on his feet Anne will leave him.  She’s become more involved in a New Age type group, and her yoga instructor/counselor Bill (Nicholas Hormann) takes up more time in her life to Jonathan’s suspicion.  With every moment of anger or emotional pain, he begins to have hallucinations and dreams of his severed hand.

The sample strips by the new artist don’t meet Jonathan’s standards for Mandro.  When he complains to Anne that his plot and script for the samples were completely ignored by the new artist, she encourages him to give up some of the creative control in order to have income so they can survive past the end of the year.  When Jonathan meets with Karen and new artist  David Maddow (Charles Fleischer) to voice his disapproval, he’s surprised to hear that Karen actually agrees with David’s ideas to make Mandro more accessible to a contemporary audience.  When she opens the portfolio to edit the sample strips, they find them splashed with black ink supposedly in an act of sabotage.  They accuse Jonathan but he suspects his daughter ruined the panels.  Returning home, Jonathan is accosted by a belligerent homeless man (played by the film’s writer/director Oliver Stone), but while he encounter is over as quickly as it started, Jonathan’s severed hand follows the homeless man into an alley and strangles him to death.

He tells Anne that he is canceling Mandro rather than have his creation changed.  It’s unlikely Karen will work with him again so he decides to take the teaching position to Anne’s disappointment.  He makes the move to California with the belief that Anne will follow him there with Lizzie soon after.  Jonathan moves into a run down cabin owned by the college and quickly strikes up a friendship with philosophy teacher Brian Ferguson (played by Bruce McGill).  When Jonathan begins to question Anne’s intention to reunite, his slow descent begins.  In the middle of one night as he gets up to investigate a strange sound, he finds his signet ring, lost after their move to Manhattan, placed in the center of his pillow.

On his first day of classes he realizes that most of his students are simply there for an easy grade rather than an interest in cartooning.  One student, townie Stella Roche (played by Annie McEnroe) catches his eye.  One night, she stops by his cabin to drop off her sketch book which quickly leads to a sexual encounter.  After she leaves, he looks through Stella’s sketchbook of amateurish drawings and finds a highly detailed sketch of her nude with a severed hand that was clearly not drawn by her.  The drawing is in his style and the signature at the bottom of the page is his own, but he has no recollection of drawing it when grading her work.  Over beers at the local bar, Brian tells Jonathan that the unconscious is capable of anything, and it’s possible he’s blacking out and his prosthetic hand  is receiving impulses to draw from his brain.  As Jonathan’s emotional state spirals downward, he becomes more suspicious of his blackouts, even sequestering himself one night to protect Stella.  But despite his efforts, his severed hand has followed him to California and continues to strike the people around him.

No spoilers here.  Oliver Stone’s The Hand is an entertaining film that I would recommend, though it is classified as a horror film almost in spite of itself.  It falls short as a horror film (slasher film fans will be disappointed at the lack of gore and sparse action), but makes up for it by hitting the right notes with drama, character development and a strong cast.   It’s also brought down by the lack of quality special effects (even by early 80’s standards the special effects for the severed hand and the bloody accident sequence are relatively crude, though masked effectively by Richard Marks’ editing) and the distracting choice to film several sequences involving the severed hand in black and white.  While Jonathan’s severed hand is supposed to be the focal point of the film, Stone’s screenplay short changes the audience by keeping its screen time a minimum, making its role in the story ambiguous and it’s “payoff” moments in the film lacking weight.  But overall The Hand is still a solid film as a psychological thriller, elevated even more by Caine’s performance.

The Hand is available on DVD and streaming video through Amazon.  As an Amazon affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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The Last Chase (1981)

The Last Chase Poster

Release Date: April 1981
Starring: Lee Majors, Chris Makepeace, Burgess Meredith, Diane D’Aquila, George Touliatos, Ben Gordon, Alexandra Stewart
Directed by Martyn Burke; Written by C.R. O’Christopher, Roy Moore and Martyn Burke

I’ve always been a fan of dystopian films with classics like Blade Runner, Red Dawn, 12 Monkeys, Escape From New York, The Road Warrior and Children of Men topping my list of favorites.  I’ve enjoyed many other examples of the genre over the years, but when Martyn Burke’s The Last Chase fell on to my cinematic radar recently, my faint memories of this 1981 film may have pre-qualified it for the “guilty pleasure” category.  I’d been a fan of Lee Majors since The Six Million Dollar Man aired on TV in the 70’s, and I remember enjoying The Last Chase enough to watch it repeatedly back when it was in heavy rotation on cable TV, but I knew going into this latest screening that my memory of the film may not live up to the reality of how it would hold up 35 years later.  So I went into The Last Chase for a fun ride and a little nostalgia but surprisingly, despite the film’s age and several dated elements, I found the film very engaging today.

The film begins with a Porsche race car pulling up to a racetrack, out of gas. Former racer Frank Hart (Lee Majors) tries to fill up his car, but the pumps are locked. The track is abandoned save for Fetch, an old track employee, who tells Hart there’s no more gas to be had and other basic supplies are starting to run low. Hart breaks open the pump, siphons out what little gas he can get for his station wagon and tows his racer home, the only driver on the empty highway.  All cars have been made illegal and had to be turned into the government a week earlier. But Hart is in no hurry to obey any orders.

Harts career ended in the 80’s after losing control in a race that led to a fatal accident between two fellow drivers. An epidemic from an unknown source struck the U.S. and Hart’s wife and son succumbed. Field hospitals are overcrowded, oil supplies have been cut off, and Martial Law is in effect to control a population still suffering from the epidemic. But as Hart says in his opening monologue, “those of us that survived learned to cope with changes.”

Twenty years later Hart works as a spokesman pushing propaganda for the mass transit authority of now auto-less Boston, living a quiet life among the obedient workers in a totalitarian system that runs counter to his personal nature and the America he knew. He’s been surveilled by the government for his difficulty adjusting to the new system and is brought in for questioning by local authorities. His non-conformist attitude doesn’t earn him any points with high level bureaucrat Santana (played by Diane D’Aquila) who doesn’t have patience for a free spirit stuck in the old days. His scavenging car parts from confiscation yards and several accrued offenses makes him automatically scheduled for a hearing and possible sentence to a rehabilitation center, the system’s new name for prison. When faced with this threat, Hart coolly replies, “Lady, you’ve too goddamn many laws.”

Adding to Santana’s frustrations, her department’s computer system is hacked by prep school student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). Ring is also an outsider that has trouble conforming to the social hierarchy of his school. He is ostracized and bullied by his fellow students but gets even by using his expertise in chemistry to set off homemade explosives on campus. When he’s not causing mayhem on campus, he sneaks away to a computer he has hidden in the attic of his dorm to hack into the government grid.

Back home, as Hart replays the video of his racing accident just to see a clip of his late wife, a broadcast from Radio Free California (an independent “free” territory) breaks into the TV feed, telling citizens that the residents of California have “returned to the land” and to their machines to escape from the oppressive regime that now controls America. This inspires Hart to break out the race car that’s been buried in pieces under his garage, working at the transportation authority by day and assembling it at night with one week to go before his trial.

Fed up with the propaganda he’s been forced to feed young audiences (“like a reformed sinner preaching to the congregation”) and the system that put him there, Hart turns tide during a speech to a group of prep school students and extols the virtues of cars, freedom and private ownership. His impromptu speech catches the attention of Ring, who sends Hart a direct message to his home that he is not alone. Hart is subsequently suspended from his position at the transportation authority with jail time very likely for his offense.

That night, as Hart looks over an old road atlas in his home, he catches Ring breaking in. When the police show up moments later, Hart assumes it’s to arrest him for his imminent trial, but they’re actually trying to track down the runaway Ring, who’s third attempt at hacking Santana’s department computer was traced back to his boarding school.  Hart covers for Ring and the police leave, but he makes a critical error when he benignly tells the officers he was waiting for his family to come home. When Santana reviews the police report moments later, she catches this irregularity and orders the police back to Hart’s home to arrest him.

With the police pounding on his door, Hart fires up the racer to hit the road to Free California, but Ring jammed the garage door opener to strong arm Hart into taking him along. Desperate to get out before the police can stop him, Hart agrees to let Ring join him on the escape. The police set up a barricade blocking Hart’s route on the outskirts of Boston, but he outflanks them by taking a long unused hidden tunnel out of the city and the police golf carts can’t catch him.

Word of Hart’s escape in an illegal race car quickly reaches Washington, and Hawkins (played by George Touliatos) is dispatched to oversee how Santana’s bureau handles his capture. Calm and collected with an eerie confidence, Hawkins draws on his old school experience and quickly begins calling the shots over the unprepared Santana. She naively believes that they will easily capture Hart once the car runs out of gas. But Hawkins politely explains that the car will not run out of gas because all old gas stations have underground tanks in which there are two to three inches of gasoline the internal pumps could not reach. With a special pump (which was established in the opening scene of the film) Hart would be able to siphon enough gas for the 3000 mile race to California.

Hawkins tasks Santana’s assistant Morely (played by Ben Gordon) with tracking down former Korean and Vietnam War jet pilot J.G. Williams to convince him to fly again in an attempt at neutralizing Hart.  Morely finds Williams (played by Burgess Meredith) in a modest apartment divorced, depressed and drinking.  A former highly decorated Air Force pilot still stinging from the abuse he received upon his return from Vietnam, Williams’ skepticism is heightened with the words “Your government needs you.” But Morely’s offer to have him fly a jet fighter again makes him put down his whiskey bottle and return to active duty for the first time in over forty years. After restoring an old F-86 jet fighter, Williams takes to the skies and the chase is on.

No spoilers here. I revisited The Last Chase as a result of the faint memory of watching it several times on cable TV around 1982-1983. There was nothing specific to the film or its message that drew me to it recently, just simple curiosity.  The film’s message of “eco-totalitarianism” and the loss of individual freedom was lost on me back then, it was simply a chase film to me.  While some might judge the film today as ham-fisted propaganda (its message would resonate loudly today with a Libertarian audience), as a dystopian film it works to solid effect.  The computers were crude by today’s standards, but they were used to good enough effect in the film because the idea behind what they were capable of (local police camera surveillance, satellite surveillance) are more believable today vs. 1981 because of the extent to which we now have surveillance technology in use. Ironically, even with the dated representation of Santana’s surveillance system, today’s audience would be more accepting of this story element.

Lee Majors vs. Burgess Meredith.  Race car vs. jet fighter.  Liberty vs. totalitarianism.  I’m glad I rediscovered The Last Chase.  The film’s opening scenes are a little clunky, especially with the unnecessary voice over, and there are a couple of scenes where a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary.  But 35 years later I still enjoyed the film and have a greater appreciation for the story and the cast (Diane D’Aquila and George Touliatos are particularly good).  It’s easy to unfairly judge the film on some of the more dated elements, but overall The Last Chase is a fun ride.

 

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Gregory’s Girl (1981)

Gregory's Girl Movie Poster

Release date: April 23, 1981 (UK); May 26, 1982 (US)

Written and Directed by Bill Forsyth

Starring John Gordon Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Clare Grogan, Allison Forster, Robert Buchanan

Did you ever flip through the channels and stumble on a movie that just makes your night?  Monday November 18th brought about an unexpected surprise when Turner Classic Movies played Bill Forsyth’s coming of age classic Gregory’s Girl in the 8PM timeslot (which is absolutely deserved – the film, produced in Scotland, ranks # 30 on the British Film Institutes list of the top 100 British films, and a clip from the film was included in the opening ceremony video of the London 2012 Olympics).  Gregory’s Girl has a special place in my cinematic heart and I remember watching (repeatedly) when when it premiered on cable TV around 1983.  We didn’t have a VCR at that time, so it must have been on the schedule at least 20 times over the course of one month.  I lost count of how many times I’d seen it back then.

High school student Gregory (played by John Gordon Sinclair) has his complacent life as a high school student and soccer player upended when Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) earns a spot on the boys soccer team.  He’s immediately smitten with her, and doesn’t even mind that she’s taken over his position at center forward and he’s been moved to goalie (at the expense of his best friend Alan losing his place on the team).  He polishes the ball before handing it to her instead of kicking it to her during the games and practice, and feels the pangs of jealousy (and a little left out from the other side of the pitch) when their teammates and the opposing team each kiss her after she scores her first goal.  His attraction to her reaches a fever pitch but he can’t muster the courage to ask her on a date.

At first Gregory’s cavalier attitude on life is charming and brings the audience back to their carefree teenage days (he calls his father “Mike,” arrives at school as he pleases, isn’t phased by losing a soccer game and doesn’t take his soccer coach seriously when told he may be kicked off the team), but it makes you wonder how he’ll take on life as he gets older if he simply lives his life as “just happy to be there.”  Despite the toll his unrequited love takes on Gregory emotionally, it’s what he needs to begin taking stock of himself and breaking the mold of complacency.  His ten year old sister Madeline is his voice of reason (“If you don’t pay attention to yourself, how do you expect people to pay attention to you?”) as well as his stylist when he finally musters the courage to ask Dorothy on a date.

The tag line of the film says it best: “There’s a little of bit him in all of us.”  Forsyth allows the audience to feel Gregory’s ups and downs with all of the angst in between.  But what I appreciate the most about Gregory’s Girl is how it doesn’t over dramatize Gregory’s situation or the every day lives of him and his friends.  The opening scene may give the mistaken impression that the film will take a sophomoric approach a la Porky’s, but there are no pacts to lose their virginity, no plans for revenge on their teachers, or pranks that will make them legends.  Forsyth didn’t need to go down that road.  He’s crafted a beloved story and film that only needs to be about a young man trying to get a date with the girl that has his heart.

Compared to American teen films of the 80’s like The Breakfast Club (a great movie in its own right), Gregory’s Girl keeps it simple, and this simplicity keeps the characters and plot grounded in a way that each of us can pick a character and substitute ourselves.  Gregory’s Girl succeeds as a film because we can relate to the themes of the awkward teen years, unrequited love, etc. and cheer Gregory on.  Forsyth’s style of directing is understated and charming, and he is a master at making a subtle gesture pop out of nowhere and turning it into a funny moment (see his 1983 classic film Local Hero).  Several of the scenes that bring out the personalities and idiosyncrasies of the supporting characters may leave the audience guessing as to Forsyth’s motivations for including them, but each of these scenes adds a new layer to the film by showing us what Gregory has around him and how he is shaped by his friends and surroundings.

As a teenager watching Gregory’s Girl, I simply enjoyed the ending without interpreting it too deeply (no spoilers here!).  But watching it again in my 40’s, as the closing credits rolled I couldn’t help but wonder how life would have turned out for Gregory, which of his high school friends he would still be in touch with, and how he coped with the loves that would eventually pass in and out of his life (I guess I’ll have to screen Forsyth’s 1999 sequel Gregory’s Two Girls to find out).   I looked back almost 25 years since my high school days and reflected on the course my life took, and I’m still fortunate to have two of my close friends from high school in my life.  As awkward as my friends and I were back in the 80’s (okay, and maybe through the 90’s too), and with all of the ups and downs of the subsequent years, I think Gregory’s Girl’s normally silent character Charlie summed it up best in a scene where one of Andy’s dreams is crushed: “I think everything’s going to be alright.”

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Time Bandits (1981)

Time Bandits Movie Poster

Release Date: November 6, 1981

Original theatrical trailer here.

Directed by Terry Gilliam; Written by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

Starring: Craig Warnock (Kevin), David Rappaport (Randall), Jack Purvis (Wally), David Warner (Evil), John Cleese (Robin Hood), Ian Holm (Napoleon), Michael Palin (Vincent), Sean Connery (Agamemnon), Ralph Richardson (The Supreme Being), Shelley Duvall (Pansy), Peter Vaughan (Winston), Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Ogre)

Anyone who knows me knows that Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite directors, with several of his films on my list of all time favorites, particularly Monty Python and the Holy Grail (co-directed with Terry Jones), The Fisher King and of course Brazil.  But another one of my personal favorites is his 1981 fantasy film Time Bandits.

By 1981 my brother and I had watched every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and were familiar with Gilliam’s animation on the show, but Time Bandits was my first introduction to Gilliam as a feature filmmaker (it would be several years before I would see Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Jabberwocky for the first time).

We caught Time Bandits at our local movie theater a week or two after it was released, and I don’t think there were more than 15 or 20 other people in the audience that Saturday afternoon.  I didn’t know too much about the plot going into that first screening, but at the time I was under the mistaken impression that it was a Monty Python film.  I was confused as to why John Cleese and Michael Palin only had minor roles, and a little disappointed that the other Pythons weren’t in the film, but that thought quickly disappeared as the story progressed.  By the closing credits I wanted to stay in my seat and watch it again.

Terry Gilliam wastes no time getting the story going.  Ten year old Kevin (played by Craig Warnock) is woken up in the middle of the night when a knight on horseback charges out of his closet and into a forest that only a moment earlier was his bedroom wall.  Cut to the next night: he dozes off waiting for the knight to return, but instead of the charging knight he’s woken up by a group of little men sneaking out of his closet.  Before Kevin can figure out what’s going on, the band of thieves is discovered and chased by an ominous figure, ordering them to return “the map.”  With Kevin’s help, they push through the bedroom wall into a tunnel leading to a black abyss.  Barely ten minutes into Time Bandits, the adventure is in full swing.

The under-sized Time Bandits (Randall, Wally, Fidgit, Strutter, Og and Vermin), international criminals by their own definition, have stolen a map of “time holes” that allow them to travel to different eras in history.  According to their leader Randall (played by David Rappaport), they were employed by the Supreme Being to repair the time holes but realized they could have a more lucrative career as time traveling thieves.

I loved every minute of Time Bandits when I was nine, and continued to enjoy it with every subsequent screening over the years.  One of the protagonists may be a ten year old, but it’s more than a kid’s film.  Gilliam and Palin’s script had wit that adults could appreciate.  They packed a lot into the story, and it’s an amazing ride for both kids and adults as the gang of thieves take Kevin on a time traveling journey that includes the Napoleonic era, the Middle Ages and ancient Greece.  But each step of the way they’re chased through time by both the Supreme Being (in a cameo by Sir Ralph Richardson), and his nemesis the Evil Genius (played by David Warner).

Every set, costume and camera angle in Time Bandits has Gilliam’s touch of the fantastic.  The effects are low tech by today’s standards, but that adds to the charm of this film.

The cast is as strong as any in Gilliam’s films, highlighted by Ian Holm (Napoleon) and Katherine Helmond (Mrs. Ogre), two favorites of Gilliam that would have significant roles several years later in his critically acclaimed Brazil.  But David Warner, Ralph Richardson and Sean Connery (King Agamemnon) take it to a higher level.  The cast is clearly shown on the movie poster, but each introduction of their characters leads to unexpected turn in the story.  This could easily have been a kid’s movie, but the film’s humor and cast of incredible actors (that didn’t take the story for granted) elevate Time Bandits to a fantasy film that’s still fun to watch over thirty years later.

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What If Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? (1981)

What If 28 Cover

What If? #28 (August 1981)
Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics’ What If? was a title I enjoyed in the 80’s.  The series, with stories introduced by The Watcher, placed our favorite Marvel characters in one-off stories that diverged from their established continuity to show how their destinies would have been altered as a result of one decision or twist of fate.  The first volume of the series for 47 issues from 1977 to 1984 and began with What If Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four? (February 1977)Over the course of the first run the series provided some great stories.  Two of my favorites were What If Wolverine Killed the Hulk? and What If Phoenix Had Not Died?

I reached into the old box o’comics this past weekend and found issue #28: What if Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? (August 1981).  This issue contained two other stories (one of which was What If Ghost Rider Was Separated from Johnny Blaze?) but the main story was an 11 pager by written by Mike Barr with pencils and inks by the amazing team of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.

What If 28 Page 1

What If? #28 (August 1981)
Marvel Comics

The story begins with a teenage Matt Murdock saving a blind pedestrian from an out of control truck.  As the truck burns, the driver unloads a canister of radioactive material from the flames to prevent an explosion.  The canister breaks open as it bounces on the pavement.  Matt stares directly at the exposed radioactive material and everything goes black.  But in this story the truck is owned by Stark Industries with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) following close behind.  Stark takes the injured Matt Murdock to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Heli-Carrier instead of a local hospital.  But as Stark’s flying car rises above the accident scene, an undercover agent reports the event to the head of Hydra…

What If 28 Page 3

What If? #28 (August 1981)
Marvel Comics

On the Heli-Carrier it’s discovered that Murdock’s exposure to the radioactive material has blinded him permanently.  But his other four senses have heightened, and Col. Nick Fury sees this as an opportunity to train Murdock to be the best agent S.H.I.E.L.D. has ever had.  Back in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen Matt’s father, boxer Battlin’ Jack Murdock, is kidnapped by Hydra.  After a month of training under Fury, Matt is ready to head home.  Fury tries to keep him with S.H.I.E.L.D., but Matt tries to make a break for it when he realizes his father is held captive.

What If 28 Page 6

What If? #28 (August 1981)
Marvel Comics

No spoilers here.  This was a great story (co-plotted by Barr and Miller) that packs a lot into its 11 pages.  When What If #28 hit the stands, Miller and Janson were already two years into their classic run on DaredevilWhat If Daredevil Became an Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.? could have easily been cranked out as a simple backup story, but Barr’s words and Miller and Janson’s artwork fire on all cylinders.  I think Miller and Janson’s layouts are a great example of the differences between comic book storytelling 30 years ago vs. today.  You could take the word balloons off of each panel and still follow the story by the art alone, unlike a lot of contemporary comic stories that seem to have most of a page consist of “talking head” panels and a limited amount of action.  I prefer the old Marvel Method over full script for this reason.

What If? #28 will be available in What If? Classic: The Complete Collection #3 on Amazon and Comixology 2/11/20.  As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  Thank you for your support!

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