Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Twisted Pleasures

A long, long time ago a friend of mine who worked at a video store tossed a tape at me one night when I was visiting. “You should see this, it’s a lot of fun,” he said. So, I took home THE SADIST and I watched it. Instead of having fun I was treated to a film that I found genuinely disturbing and upsetting. The weird thing is, all these years later whole chunks of THE SADIST had stayed with me. It’s safe to say that there are films I saw within the past year which hadn’t stuck me as well as this grimy little exploitation film from 1963 that I saw over fifteen years ago. So naturally I was excited at the chance to see it again when Joe Dante scheduled the film as part of the Dante’s Inferno festival at the New Beverly. In his introduction Dante talked about first seeing it back in 1963 in a genuinely dangerous theater and how he’s still surprised at how unknown the film remains. It was his 35mm print that was being screened and considering how rare such an item must be, this was certainly a unique opportunity.

Three high school teachers, each looking like squares right out of the fifties, are driving through the desert on their way to the Dodgers game on a hot Sunday. When they develop engine trouble, they pull into a junkyard hoping to secure a part. After determining it to be deserted, they are suddenly confronted by a sadistic young man with a gun (Arch Hall, Jr.) and his girlfriend. Though they first expect the young couple will simply take their car and money, the three teachers quickly discover just how dangerous their predicament is.

Set in real time, shot for next to no money (so little, we’re told, that the production used live ammo for the gunshots), THE SADIST by all logic should be as terrible as most no-budget exploitation films from the time are, yet it somehow works just about all the way through, bringing a genuine sense of danger to the story it tells. When it begins there’s a slight feeling that it will be another piece of schlock, but these thoughts are quickly wiped away when the main character, based on Charles Starkweather, shows up. It’s impossible to say for sure if Arch Hall, Jr. gives what would normally considered a good performance, but it is undoubtedly effective. It might not be real, but it doesn’t have to be and he brings a level of terror which is so truly unexpected that you believe it when the upstanding school teachers genuinely don’t seem to know how to respond to him and his actions. It helps keep everything on edge. The other actors, all unknowns to this day, may seem square and stilted, but they’re believably square and stilted. The way they come off seems surprisingly naturalistic and human when compared to what usually passes as performances in films of this type. It’s shocking how much in this film works. And it can’t be considered a case of a movie being good by accident…it’s too skillfully made for that. Whatever happened during this production, the stars seem to have truly aligned and it would make for an interesting comparison with the controversial “That’s My Dog” episode of SIX FEET UNDER from a few years ago.

The film is also notable for being the first 35mm film shot by the great Vilmos Zsigmond and much of the credit for the film’s success should go to him. And it’s a pleasure to see that the great cinematographer hasn’t turned his back on this early work, showing up at the New Beverly for the screening and a Q&A afterwards. It led off with him marveling at the crowd’s response, “They seem to have liked it. I don’t know why.” He spoke in surprising detail about the limitations of the production such as the lack of funds and the difficulties of making the light always look like it was between noon and 1:30. He also seemed bemused that Dante was asking him about such names as Ray Dennis Steckler and Al Adamson instead of some that he is probably usually asked about (Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Michael Cimino…) and it was a thrill to hear him talk about films that he worked on such a long time ago.

One of my strongest memories of the film has always been its ending, a callback to a dialogue exchange at the beginning which seeing it the other night after all this time struck me as strangely, movingly transcendent and honestly brought an emotional chill over me. That’s not what you ever expect to say about something called THE SADIST, a movie so much better than it would seemingly have any right to be, it makes you think that sometimes the Gods of Cinema really do smile down on these things. Even when it involves the creation of a film as disturbing as this one is.

After the break we had Larry Cohen in to introduce THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER. Telling some fascinating stories about the making of the film which included him talking at length about how they managed to shoot at FBI headquarters and in Washington DC without actual permission, I was reminded how much fun it is to listen to Larry Cohen talk about the films he makes. Unfortunately, you’re then faced with the reality of some of these movies which are often not as interesting as you think they will be. A docudrama of J.Edgar Hoover’s life as FBI director, covering over forty years in 112 minutes, it feels like it should be more focused, more consistent than it is and ultimately feels a little muddled. Cohen’s films often feel like they have this weird, half-awake nightmare kind of feel to them, in both good and bad ways, and this one is no different. There are plenty of odd, interesting moments throughout but too often these parts feel either too isolated from the rest of the movie or simply fizzle away, losing their effectiveness. As a result, the whole thing winds up coming off as a jumble more than anything else. It’s an interesting jumble, sure, but a frustrating one. It is, however, interesting enough that I feel like I should give it another try at some point but deep down I suspect my response will be the same. At the least, it gets plenty of points for intent. The film has an immensely impressive cast, including Broderick Crawford as Hoover, Dan Dailey, Michael Parks, Jose Ferrer, Rip Torn, Celeste Holm, John Marley, Lloyd Nolan, Andrew Duggan and many others. Considering the movie obviously didn’t cost a lot, I wonder how Cohen was able to cast so many of them, but maybe in 1977 aging actors of that sort were glad to get the chance to play an actual serious role, not some crummy part in a disaster movie. At the least the cast adds to the interest and there’s something to the overall biopic-crossed-with-tabloid-sensationalism tone that makes me believe it was a small inspiration to Oliver Stone, especially in the case of NIXON (which featured Bob Hoskins as Hoover) and, for all I know, his upcoming Bush biopic. It’s not as strong as I’d like it to be but like just about every Larry Cohen movie, the stories behind making it are priceless.

I don’t know exactly why these movies were paired together, unless it’s simply varying examples of filmmakers trying to craft something serious out of next to nothing. For me one works and one is problematic yet I would still want to return to both of them to attempt to figure out why. Those are the sort of mysteries that Joe Dante offers up to us at the New Beverly. They're the twisted pleasures of finding things in films which you never expect.


Adam Ross said...

I remember the opening to this movie exactly how you describe it, and also was surprised at the sense of dread and unease that seems to always fill the frame. I bet it would have been fun to have Arch Hall, Jr. there for the Q&A -- interesting to see he was in 6 movies between '61 and '65, then nothing since.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Glad to hear that someone else has seen THE SADIST! In the discussion Zsigmond mentioned that Arch Hall, Jr. was losing interest in acting when they shot this film. You'd never know it from watching his performance. Dante added that he became he later became an airplane pilot and in recent years has made appearances at autograph shows.

D Cairns said...

Thanks for reporting back from these films -- wish I could be there to see them too!
If you feel like reporting any of Larry Cohen's or anybody else's stories in more detail, I'd love to hear them!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

The stories Cohen tells about making this movie on location in D.C. are a little crazy--First Lady Betty Ford had invited Broderick Crawford and Dan Dailey to the White House when she heard they were in town and Cohen says he dropped her name to get them to shoot at the FBI. And when they went to actually shoot period scenes on the street, he brought in old cars from a nearby historical society and the owners were extras. They had no permits, so Cohen says they would simply wave hello at the cops as if they were supposed to be there--they pulled a similar trick when they showed up at Hoover's actual house to shoot. It could never happen now. Who knows if it even happened then, but there definitely is D.C. location footage in the movie, which helps make it look a lot more expensive than it was. Cohen seems like the sort of guy you could listen to for hours and never get bored.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I should add that I have been seeing people in the audience with cameras out during these intros and Q&As and they have been popping up on Youtube. Dennis Cozzalio's great site Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which you'll find linked on the main page, has several of them laid out or go to Youtube, enter "Joe Dante New Beverly" and you'll find even more of them. They're a blast to watch.

D Cairns said...

Thanks! I'll check them out.