Sunday, October 19, 2008


In a distinguished career spanning over four decades, film director Richard Fleisher called the shots on a number of memorable, well-made motion pictures. In the 1950s, he gained acclaim with his hard-nosed crime thrillers, among them "Armored Car Robbery" (1950), "The Narrow Margin" (1952), and "Violent Saturday" (1955). Later, he would turn to true-life crime with "Compulsion" (1959), "The Boston Strangler"
(1968), and "10 Rillington Place" (1971). Many remember him for his ground-breaking sci-fi films, among them "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954), "Fantastic Voyage"
(1966), and "Soylent Green" (1973). Fleisher also ventured with serviceable results into the realm of fantasy with the seminal Kirk Douglas & Tony Curtis saga "The Vikings" and then later teamed up with Arnold Schwarzenegger to helm "Conan the Destroyer" (1984) and "Red Sonja" (1985). Fleischer directed the Darryl F. Zanuck-produced World War II epic "Tora, Tora, Tora" (1970) long before Michael Bay's turgid, soap operatic "Pearl Harbor," and he directed one of the more controversial biographies of the 1960s: "Che!" (1969) with Omar Sharif as the legendary Argentinian Communist revolutionary and guerrilla fighter Che Guevara and Jack Palance as Fidel Castro. Mind you, he has also made his share of turkeys: "Doctor Doolittle" (1967) with Rex Harrison and "Mandingo' (1975) with James Mason. During those 40 years, Fleisher experimented with virtually every genre. He made one Biblical epic "Barabbas" (1961) and "Amityville 3-D" (1983).

Interestingly, Fleischer is least remembered for his three westerns: "Bandido"
(1956), "These Thousand Hills" (1959) and the Lee Marvin outlaw epic "The Spikes Gang." Robert Mitchum plays Wilson, an American adventurer in a white linen beneath the Mexican border trying to arrange an arms deal between a trigger-happy Hispanic bandit colonel (Gilbert Roland of "The Torch") and another well-heeled gringo merchant Kennedy (Zachary Scott of "Mildred Pierce") who initially plans to sell his ordinance to the Mexican Army. Director Richard Fleisher helmed this atmospheric, 1916-circuit shoot'em up on actual Mexican revolutionary battle sites with extras who had served on both sides of the fracas and swapped lead with each other. Scenarist Earl Felton penned the exciting but occasionally contrived screenplay. Interestingly enough, "Bandido" (*** out of ****)qualified as the fourth collaboration between Fleischer and Felton. Earlier, they had worked together on Fleischer's hard-boiled crime thrillers. Compared with the westerns of the 1960s and the 1970s, "Bandido" is more noisy than bloodthirsty. Indeed, thousands of rounds of ammunition are expended, but you don't see blood-splattered bodies tumbling every which way as they would later in the films of Sam Peckinpah. Nevertheless, when this Mexican revolutionary melodrama came out in the 1950s, there weren't that many westerns of its kind being released. Indeed, Italian writer & director Sergio Corbucci drew inspiration from "Bandido" to make a couple of trendy Franco Nero spaghetti westerns: "A Professional Gun" (1968) and "Companeros" (1970). This type of spaghetti western became a sub-genre of its own during the 1960s and the 1970s. (Not only did Fleischer's "Bandido" inspire these Euro westerns, "The Vikings" had given rise to the short-lived Viking peplum movies such as "Erik the Conqueror" and "Knives of the Avenger.")

Anyway, our money-hungry mercenary hero shows Escobar the bandit colonel how he can obtain the arms that he so desperately needs. Escobar and his peasant army commandeer the train that the Mexican government has provided Kennedy. At the same time, the villainous Gunther (gimlet-eyed Henry Brandon, best known for his treacherous Indian in the John Wayne epic "The Searchers"), the go-between Kennedy and the Mexican generals, suggests to Kennedy before the train falls into Escobar's hands, to send the Mexican revolutionaries on a wild goose chase to a sea-side villa where Gunther will arrange to have the soldiers rescue him. Gunther then escapes capture and heads off to warn the Mexican General about this turn of events. Instead, a wily Wilson convinces Escobar to hold Kennedy captive and send Kennedy's beautiful wife Lisa (German actress Ursula Thiess) with an escort to where the guns are stashed. Escobar is the kind of character who doesn't let people lie to him more than once. At the last minute, Wilson suspects that Kennedy has dispatched his wife and the revolutionaries on the wrong trail, so he rides after them. Wilson saves Lisa from being gunned down, but he puts himself at odds with Escobar who is only too willing to kill him. Eventually, Escobar's resourceful men capture Wilson and throw him in jail with Kennedy who realizes the error of his ways. At this point, Felton's screenplay gets a little too cute. When the bandits decide to execute Wilson, they allow him to take his jacket with him. Earlier in the action, our hero made a big deal out of the hand grenades that he kept in his suitcase with his linen, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he uses a couple of hand grenades to break Kennedy and himself out of jail. They escape through a swamp and Kennedy grudgingly reveals the whereabouts of the ordinance. Predictably, when Kennedy bad mouths Wilson about his treachery, Escobar is nearby and learns what a nice guy that Wilson is and allows him to live. Kennedy dies in a blaze of gunfire and our heroes find the ordinance and save the day. The romantic subplot between amorous Wilson and Kennedy's unhappy wife generates few sparks and it's easy to see why Thiess' career foundered. Meanwhile, the camaraderie between Mitchum and Roland is first-rate, just the kind of stuff that Italian westerns who pay homage to. Later, Roland made several spaghetti westerns as a Mexican bandit type. If you can catch a letterboxed copy of "Bandido," you can see some truly gorgeous scenery and camera work. Mitchum would later encore in a similarly themed western from the same era entitled "The Wrath of God," where he would play another adventurer who lugged around a Thompson submachine gun in a suitcase rather than a pair of hand grenades.


When RKO released "Betrayal from the East" (** out of ****) World War II was into its waning days. Nevertheless, the Japanese are portrayed as vicious, omniscient antagonists with the Nazis running a close second in this tale about pr-Pearl Harbor espionage. A couple of Americans in Tokyo have gotten hold of some volatile information about high-ranking Japanese military officials in the United States, but they are killed before they can get the information to U.S. military intelligence referred to here as G-2. One of the Americans—a leading newspaperman—dies from a mysterious fall while the other vanishes into the ocean on his voyage to San Francisco. It seems that the wily Japanese want information about the Panama Canal so that they can shut down the canal and prevent the U.S. from shipping men, munitions, and ships through this important point. That's when carnival barker Eddie (Lee Tracy of "Bombshell") finds himself lured into the story. The Japanese contact the wise-talking Eddie and he assures them that he was not only stationed in the Canal Zone during his six years in the Army but also that he knows a sergeant who can get him to the plans to the zone. The Japanese pay his expenses on the way south to the canal. Before they set out for Panama, they show him what they do to double agents. We see a gardener that the villains have captured and Eddie watches for a moment or two as they try to sweat information out of him then approach him—the gardener—with the glowering end of a steel rod. Later, Eddie learns that an attractive clothing designer that he met on the train trip to L.A. was another agent. Although he has made a deal with the Japanese, Eddie goes to G-2 and they reveal that they have been tailing him the entire time. Despite the threat of torture and execution, our intrepid hero decides to play along with the Japanese. Unfortunately, the scenarists have written Eddie as a dim-witted idiot who finds himself in over his head and makes virtually every mistake that can be made. Meanwhile, the Japanese villains are portrayed as experts and nothing is too devious for them. "Betrayal from the East" is the kind of Hollywood propaganda that the studios churned out to the chagrin of the U.S. Office of War Information (O.W.I.) during World War II that painted the Japanese as double-crossing, back-stabbing dastards. Along the way, the clothing designer Peggy Harrison (Nancy Kelly of "Tarzan's Desert Mystery") falls in love with Eddie and stages her own death to protect from the Japanese. Actually, the Japanese placed a camera in Eddie's apartment so they knew that Harrison was a U.S. spy. When Eddie reaches the Canal Zone, he meets with an Army sergeant (Regis Toomey) who is impersonating the Eddie's fictitious friend and they arrange to pass the Japanese false, out-of-date Canal Zone defense plans. Prolific scenarist Audrey Wisberg and director William A. Berke then pull a real boner by reinserting the Harrison character back into the story in the Canal Zone (much to Eddie's surprise and consternation as a woman with impeccable credentials who is a Nazi agent's girlfriend. The Japanese suspect the Harrison character from the get-go as untrustworthy and eventually the Nazis come around to their way of thinking. Peggy blows her cover when she warns Eddie about a plot to murder him by his Japanese employers. Yes, Eddie is so incredibly cretinous that he does things that a four-year old would never do when he tries to outwit the Japanese. Now, "Betrayal from the East" not only kills off both Peggy (she dies in a sauna bath) but also the chief Japanese villain (Chinese actor Richard Loo) kills Eddie just as G-2 breaks down the door. Journalist Drew Pearson appears in a prologue where he warns Americans that this kind of treachery must never happen again. Actually, if you want to see this story done with great credibility and more dramatic impact, watch the Warner Brothers 1942 release "Across The Pacific" with Humphrey Bogart where he strings along with Japanese saboteurs who want similar information about the Canal Zone.