Monday, November 3, 2008


The John Sturges western "Last Train from Gun Hill" is another one of those chamber westerns from the 1950s where the villains corner the hero in an urban setting and both sides have to count down to their inevitable showdown based on a ticking clock. Aside from some early scenes shot outdoors, most of "Last Train from Gun Hill" occurs within the city limits of the frontier western town of Gun Hill. Furthermore, the story pits two long-time friends, a courageous lawman Kirk Douglas against a powerful cattle baron Anthony Quinn. When the story opens neither man has seen the other in years, but both have sons. Russian composer Dimitri Tiomkin provides "Last Train from Gun Hill" with another one of his brilliant, evocative orchestral scores that enlivens the drama.

The stalwart hero, Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), serves as marshal in the peaceful town of Pauley. One day Matt's wife, Catherine Morgan (Ziva Rodann of "King Creole"), and their young son, (Ricky William Kelman), are on the way back from the Indian Reservation where they have just visited her father when two drunken cowpokes, Rick Belden (Earl Holliman of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral") and Lee Smithers (Brian G. Hutton, future director of "Where Eagles Dare"), frighten them. Catherine whips Rick so violently that it leaves a scar on his face. Enraged, Rick runs them down, and their carriage overturns. Rick knocks aside her boy and rapes her in the woods. During the rape, Matt's son steals Rick's horse and rides back to town to alert his father. Meanwhile, Matt is in town describing a famous gun battle that took place years ago between the infamous Bradley boys and him. At a properly dramatic moment, his son coming thundering into town on the stolen horse crying his eyes out. Matt rides back to where the carriage overturned and finds the partially nude body of his raped wife who lies dead in the woods. When Matt walks back to the horse with his wife in his arms, he notices the elaborate leather saddle and raises one of the flaps. Tiomkin's score singles out this moment with a melodramatic tone when Matt discovers the initials C.B. in the saddle. He recognizes those initials and heads back to town to prepare for his journey to Gun Hill to see his own friend about the stolen horse.

At the Belden ranch, Rick and Lee return and complain to Craig Belden about the loss of Rick's horse. Craig (Anthony Quinn of "The Ride Back") could care less about the loss of the horse, but he demands that Rick find his saddle. Moreover, Craig refuses to settle for any substitute for that saddle. He makes a big deal out of it and this is the point where we see that father and son are not on the same wavelength. Later, we discover that they like to batter women. At one point, Craig's foreman Beero (Brad Dexter of "The Magnificent Seven") makes a joke about the scar on Rick's father. Craig interprets the comment as a slur on the Belden name and forces Rick to fight with Beero. Predictably, Beero knocks out Rick in no time. Craig roars about Rick not having enough pride. Win or lose, whenever anybody disgraces the name of Belden, Craig expects his son to fight back. Afterward, they share a chuckle about the 'she-bears' in Pauley, the peaceful town, where Rick lost the horse and saddle.

Matt takes the train to Gun Hill and rents a buggy to see Craig Belden. He returns the saddle to Craig, and they reminisce about old times. Craig tells Matt that his son lost the horse in Pauley, but by now Craig knows that his son raped and killed Matt's wife. Furthermore, Craig knows that nothing in the world will prevent Matt from taking Rick back in irons to stand trial. Matt returns to Gun Hill where he receives a chilly reception and Craig sends Beero and another cowpoke, Skag (Bing Russell of "The Magnificent Seven") to town to watch over Rick. Matt snoops around, then enters the saloon from the rear by a tree and catches Rick hiding behind some curtains, slugs him and takes his prisoner. The Gun Hill sheriff, Bartlett (Walter Sande of "Bad Day at Black Rock") refuses to let Matt use his jail cell until the train arrives, so Matt holes up with Rick in the local hotel. Meantime, Craig rounds up all his gunhands and they lay siege to the hotel. Craig's old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones of "The Addams Family") has just returned to Gun Hill from a long stay in the hospital. Craig uses her as a go-between, but she goes behind his back and smuggles Matt a shotgun. Neither man plans to back down in this duel of the titans.

When "Last Train to Gun Hill" appeared theatrically in 1959, interracial romances in westerns were nothing new, but this western contained a rape scene that occurred partly on camera, though by the time that Rick had ripped off Catherine's clothing, the camera has retreated to a long shot. "Last Train from Gun Hill" represented a new spate of westerns that dealt with frank subject matter because the western had encountered flak from its television counterparts and film producers were looking from material of a more adult nature. Charles Lang's cinematography is exemplary and Tiomkin's theme music knows where to highlight segments of the plot for maximum impact. John Sturges paces the momentum so that things never get boring. The speech about hanging is superb from a top-notch screenplay by James Poe. Hal Wallis produced this above-average oater for Paramount Pictures.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.


Freshman director Denys McCoy's post American Civil War western "The Last Rebel" (* out of ****) with Joe Namath, Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Ty Hardin amounts to a sorry excuse for a horse opera. Indeed, "Beyond the Law" scenarist Warren Kiefer and co-scripter Rea Redifer have fashioned an entirely believable, hopelessly predictable and happily simple oater about two Confederate soldiers that fall out with each other and shoot up a town in Missouri. The best thing about this amateurishly lensed and edited western is the anachronistic orchestral score that Jon Lord and Tony "Deep Purple" Aston provided. It is easy to understand why Denys McCoy dropped out of sight after "The Last Rebel," since he couldn't stage suspenseful action scenes. The next best thing is the Harper's Weekly wood cuts of the Civil War that appear behind the opening credits.

The setting is southwest Missouri in the spring of 1865. The Federal troops are dug in on one side of the river, while the Confederate troops have fortified themselves on the opposite bank. Matt Graves (Jack Elam of "Kansas City Confidential") spots a duck splashing about in the river. He rouses Burnside Hollis (Joe Namath of "Avalanche Express") and Hollis grabs his rifle. A Union rifleman takes aim at the duck, but Hollis blows the bird out of the water with one shot. The Union sharpshooter grumbles with feeling, "That reb never misses."

Nine minutes into the storyline, a Confederate messenger arrives and informs the lieutenant that Lee has surrendered in Virginia and that they have to lay down their arms. The lieutenant (Herb Andress of "Lady Frankenstein") rides out to meet a Union officer (Sebastian Segriff) in the middle of the river to discuss terms of surrender. The Union officer warns him that he must display a white flag. Before the Confederate lieutenant can pull a white flag to stick on his saber, the Yankees cut him down in a hail of gunfire. Burnside Hollis decides that he doesn't want to wind up in a Federal prison camp so he skedaddles and Matt follows him. They ride off and don't stop until they spot a southern lynch mob about to hang a former Union soldier, Duncan (Woody Strode of "The Professionals"), and Hollis demands his release. He gives Duncan a horse to ride and scatters the southerners.

Later that evening, Matt gets a lot off his chest. He confides in Hollis. "I don't like the way things are going. What I mean is, here we are, two busted rebels out in the middle of nowhere, with a rock (Duncan) in our pocket. The way I see it, we been running so long we don't know how to do nothing else. It's time that we stopped and dug our heels in." Matt is the schemer of the bunch.

Hollis trusts Duncan, but Matt doesn't share Hollis' sentiments toward Duncan. Our heroes find a stagecoach with a dead man in it and a young girl. When they arrive in town with the stagecoach, Hollis and Matt tell the sheriff (a bearded Ty Hardin of "PT-109") about what happened. He wants them to get out of town in an hour. Our heroes cheerfully ignore him and set themselves up over at Pearl's place, a sort of saloon & cathouse. Meanwhile, Matt obtains Hollis a suit of clothes that only a tin-horn would wear. Hollis sucks a pool hustler and takes him for every cent. Basically, he wins about $4-thousand dollars and he entrusts it for safe keeping with Duncan so that he can enjoy himself in the arms of Pearl (Victoria George of "El Dorado") Matt demands his share of the loot. Hollis tells him that he gave it all to Duncan but he doesn't know Duncan's whereabouts. Hollis tracks down Duncan. Duncan, it seems, had taken the cash and hidden it in his double-barreled shotgun. Matt—masquerading as the Klu Klux Klan—sneaks up on them and arrests them. They have Hollis and Duncan dig a deep hole and then toss in knives to see who will survive. Our heroes surprise the bad guys and decimate them with the help of a young African-American youth (Bruce Eweka) who wields a rifle.

Later, Matt teams up with the sheriff, but their alliance is short-lived when Duncan drops the lawman with both barrels of his double-barreled shotgun and Hollis drill him once for good measure. One of Matt's trigger-happy pistoleros shoots Pearl. This is the only surprising thing about "The Last Rebel," since the Pearl character had done nothing wrong. Hollis resolves to kill the assassin. He wants to confront Matt out on main street, but by this time, Matt's men have started a fire. Duncan laments the fire. "It'd be nice to use that front door once." Hollis smashes through a window, lands in the street and starts blasting away, while Duncan joins him. Hollis strikes a heroic pose as the fire consumes Pearl's place in the blazing inferno behind him.

"The Last Rebel" qualifies as an execrable oater. Joe Namath isn't much of an actor. In all fairness to Namath, the role of Burnside Hollis didn't give him much to work with to craft a character. When Hollis decides to ride back to town to save the girl, Duncan observes, "That's playing a damn fool." Hollis replies, "Well, I guess I never was much else." Jack Elam as the principal villain, Woody Strode as the ex-Union soldier, and Ty Hardin as a corrupt sheriff fare better in their respective roles. Ty Hardin has a great death scene in the lobby of the bordello where he gets riddled with bullets. Aside from the knowledge that this movie was shot in Rome, "The Last Rebel" doesn't at all resemble a spaghetti western. Cinematographer Carlo Carlini's work here is pathetic compared with his stupendous work on "Death Rides A Horse." When "The Last Rebel" came out, it was still acceptable to refer to African-Americans by the 'n' word.


British commandos parachute into Nazi-occupied France before the June 6th Allied invasion scheduled for Normandy against Fortress Europe to destroy a dam in Maurizio Pradeaux's above-average World War II secret mission movie "Churchill's Leopards" (*** out of ****), toplining expatriate American leading man Richard Harrison and German character actor Klaus Kinski. Pradeaux's serious-minded, behind-enemy-lines thriller duplicates the familiar line-up of events that inevitably culminate in the pyrotechnics at the dam at the end of the film. The chief problem here is the hackneyed gimmick of identical twin brothers on which the plausibility of the mission rests and mediocre special effects when the dam is blown to smithereens. "Churchill's Leopards" generates sufficient suspense to keep you interested. The two chief flaws are its paucity of surprises and its cookie-cutter characters bereft of any memorable characteristics.

Italian peplum/Spaghetti western actor Richard Harrison plays dual roles in this Macaroni war movie. He is cast capably enough as both British Army lieutenant Richard Benson and German Wehrmacht officer Hauptman Hans Muller. We are told that Benson and Muller were the sons of a British father and a German mother. The mother ardently supported the policies of Adolf Hitler before she died.

Pradeaux immerses audiences with black & white, documentary World War II footage to establish the proper mood. As the movie opens, a sexy female French Resistance agent stabs Muller to death while he is making love to her in bed. Interestingly, Pradeaux doesn't show the cold, hard steel of the knife plunging into the German's flesh. Moments later, Benson steps into his death brother's boots with a twinge of regret. Later, he is informed that nobody could have been done to prevent Muller's death. The masquerade proves to be no picnic for Benson. He has to contend with the likes of an evil, sagacious Nazi Gestapo officer Captain Holtz (Klaus Kinski of "For A Few Dollars More") who persistently checks up on Benson and chides him about his lust for women. The only thing that differentiates Benson and Muller is a large, ugly scar on his lower right-hand side of his back. This identifying mark plays an important role later in the film.

Meanwhile, in England, the British plan to blast the huge dam with a sophisticated underwater drill furnished to them by the Royal Navy. "Because of the narrowness of the gorge and the position of the dam, it is impregnable to air attack," an older, superior British officer explains to Major Powell (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart of "The Revenge of Spartacus") in the usual briefing before the big mission scene. At least, Pradeaux gets this obligatory scene out of the way early. "If we can break it, the water released will wash away all the roads and important bridges for miles and miles around." The colonel adds that the supply lines of two Panzer divisions will be destroyed. When Powell asked about high altitude bombing as an alternative, his commander points out that the Americans advanced that argument initially, but the experts felt that it wouldn't have been as effective as place a charge in the dam.

The first moment of genuine suspense occurs 28 minutes into the picture when the good guys are hidden in a wagon piled high with hay that the Nazis decide to give the pitchfork test. Appropriately enough, complications make things none-too-easy for Powell and his commandos. The aerial drop took a toll on their explosives equipment. As a result, Powell has to impersonate a priest to confer with Benson about obtaining replacement parts. This hasty arranged rendezvous gets Powell in trouble when a Nazi patrol demands to see his permit and they have to kill them. Holtz selects twenty villagers to execute unless the killer or killers come forward. Pradeaux drums up some suspense in this scene as well as in the final part of the movie as the commandos laboriously drill a hole large enough into the dam to seat a large, cylindrical explosives charge. The Germans storm the dam with Holtz leading the charge.

Klaus Kinski could sleep walk through this role, since he played a similar S.S. Officer in Gianfranco Parolini's "Five for Hell." Incidentally, Kinski served in the German Army in World War II and the British took him prisoner in the Netherlands. Harrison gives his standard but sympathetic tight-lipped performance as a British lieutenant. He has been dubbed as was the entire cast. Unfortunately, the usually reliable Giacomo Rossi-Stuart comes off looking curiously bland. The scenery is spectacular and the dam looks impressive until the pyro-technicians provide a sloppy substitute for it when it explodes.

Wild East Productions has done a superlative job of transferring "I Leopardi di Churchill" to DVD; it's an immaculate widescreen print in 1.85.1 with crisp, clear colors. This formulaic, war-as-a-thrilling-adventure action yarn with the British whipping the Nazis once again, is paired on the Wild East DVD with the Klaus Kinski & George Hilton World War II movie "Salt in the Wound," a.k.a. "The Liberators." Yes, "Salt in the Wound" is more substantial than the superficial but competently staged "I Leopardi di Churchill."


Although your skin may crawl at the sight of giant snakes in director Dwight H. Little's new movie "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid" (** out of ****),this shallow, uneven, in-name-only sequel to "Anaconda" (1997), with an unknown cast leaves a lot to be desired as a blood-curdling creature feature. Whereas "Anaconda" with Jennifer Lopez pitted our protagonists against a pair of predatory anacondas, "Anacondas" raises the stakes considerably with dozens of dinosaur-sized anacondas surrounding our heroes in the middle of anaconda mating season. The quiet moments stand out as the eeriest in this suspenseful but anti-climatic thriller. As our intrepid heroes wade through the watery reaches of the jungle, the camera hovers overhead to give audiences a bird's eye view of the characters sloshing along blissfully unaware of the humongous coils of an anaconda as it glides silently underwater around them without creating a ripple on the surface. "Anacondas" doesn't get any better than this elaborately-staged long shot. Unfortunately, a slipshod screenplay credited to four writers and second-rate, computer-generated, special effects shots of the reptiles rips the fangs out of "Anacondas." Mind you, the original "Anaconda" suffered from shoddy special effects snake shots, too, but the name brand cast more than compensated for the cheesy snakes, especially Jennifer Lopez in a wet tank top and Jon Voight as a hammy villain. While "Anaconda's" anacondas switched between the spurious CGI snakes in the long shots and believable animatronic puppets in the close-ups, the snakes in "Anacondas" are totally computer generated and appear anything but intimidating. Incredibly, the two snakes in "Anaconda" possessed more personality than the unknown number of synthetic anacondas slithering around in "Anacondas" with nothing to distinguish one snake from another. Scenarists John Claflin and Daniel Zelman of TV's "They Nest' and Michael Miner and Edward Neumeier of "RoboCop" do a poor job of laying out the ground rules in this battle between humans and snakes. One minute we're told anacondas with a man-sized snack in their bellies lay off hunting, then the next minute we learn that these giant, Alaskan pipeline-sized anacondas chuck up their victims then continue to hunt. The first-half of this lean, efficient, but predictable 97-minute, PG-13-rated serpent saga succeeds in setting up our heroes' objectives and obstacles. The second-half doesn't pay off the creepy suspense, however, with enough spine-tingling scenes of snakes making supper out of humans.

A scientific expedition of multi-racial, stereotypical characters led by an urbane British scientist, Dr. Jack Byron (Matthew Marsden of "Black Hawk Down"), and his entrepreneurial right-hand man Gordon Mitchell (Morris Chestnut of "Half-Past Dead") plunge into the wild jungles of Borneo to retrieve a rare bloom, the Blood Orchid, that they plan to use to manufacture the "pharmaceutical equivalent of the fountain of youth." The corporate CEO's eyes light up when Mitchell predicts, "It'll be bigger than Viagra!" Unluckily, this unusual flower blossoms only once every seven years, and they are in the middle of the two-week blooming season when Byron and Mitchell launch their expedition. Director Dwight Little and his quartet of scenarists do an effective job of setting the plot into motion and saddling our heroes with problems galore. Anyway, when our heroes arrive in Borneo, the rainy season sets in, and nobody wants to ferry them into the rain-swollen jungle. Byron and Mitchell find an American expatriate, Bill Johnson (virile Johnny Messner of "Operation Delta Force 4: Deep Fault"), with a barge who will accommodate them if they can pay him $25-thousand dollars. One look at Johnson's ramshackle boat, and you'd swear you stumbled onto "The African Queen." During the scenic trip down river, pharmaceutical big-wig Gail Stern (Salli Richardson of "Biker Boyz") falls overboard and a ravenous crocodile attacks her. Johnson's Tarzan-style fight with the croc qualifies as the most exciting action sequence in the entire movie. Later, Johnson's boat is caught in an undercurrent and pulled over a waterfall. Little gets more mileage out of Johnson's boat crashing over the waterfall than he does in the struggle with the snakes. Of course, while all this is going on, the anacondas circle, flickering their tongues in anticipation. Set afoot with no weapons and a slim chance of survival, our woebegone heroes must brave the jungle and hope they don't get eaten. Along the way, they discover to their horror that the diabolical anacondas have been feeding on the Blood Orchid and the flower has made their monster-sized man-eaters.

Although "Anacondas" takes place in Borneo, Borneo has no anacondas, only pythons. In other words, Little and his four writers have exercised considerable dramatic license in piecing together this half-baked, herpetological hokum. Again, the second half finds our heroes trying to elude the snakes after they turn against each other over whether they should still try to retrieve the Orchid. Cinematically, the snakes lack menace, and they strike so swiftly that they appear cartoonish, undercutting the dramatic impact of the death scenes. The writers never reveal how many snakes that our heroes are up against, so we have no idea if they are whittling down the opposition. A minor surprise or two with regard to who gets chomped first and who escapes being snake bait cannot redeem the uninspired last half-hour. The MPPA PG-13 rating clearly takes a toll on the snake munching scenes. Despite the erratic plotting and the poor SPFX, veteran director Dwight H. Little (whose screen credits include "Halloween 4," "Free Willy 2," "Rapid Fire," "Marked For Death," and "Murder At 1600") delivers lots of mild jolts and atmospheric moments. Anybody who reacts to the least provocation of terror will find the presence of a small monkey in the cast particularly troubling. Like a cat in a haunted house, this screaming monkey jumps into somebody's lap when they least suspect it and all hell breaks loose momentarily. Altogether, a fair potboiler from start to finish, "Anacondas" fails to pay-off an enthralling first half with its counterfeit snakes and its formulaic plot.


"Armed Response" (** out of ****) qualifies as one of B-movie director Fred Olen Ray's better crime thrillers. David Carradine plays Jim Roth, a Los Angeles barkeeper in his own bar who suffers from Vietnam War flashbacks. Interestingly, the Vietnam sequences in his memories emerge as much as an indictment of the historic American-Asian conflict as the after effects that the fighting inflicted on his psyche. Unfortunately, the helmets and the uniforms don't contribute to the authenticity of the action, though everything else about this sequence passes muster, especially the choppers. Carradine dons the smallest possible helmet imaginable and looks too old. Meanwhile, spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef minus his hair piece is effectively cast as Carradine's crusty, ex-detective dad Burt Roth. Japanese actor Mako of "The Sand Pebbles" does a credible turn as ruthless Yakuza boss Akira Tanaka. Last, but not least, horror movie icon Michael Berryman of "The Hills Have Eyes" registers a memorable appearance as one of Akira's more sinister henchmen. The scene where Berryman blasts one of expendable members of the Roth family with a shotgun will stick in your mind because he wears a jump suit with a yellow smiley face on the left breast pocket.

Chiefly, the predictable but entertaining T.K. Lankford screenplay pays homage to the 1940s mystery thrillers that starred Humphrey Bogart, particularly "The Maltese Falcon." The Yakuza wants a valuable statue back, so they hire an unscrupulous gumshoe. Cory Thornton (B-movie veteran Ross Hagen of "The Devil's 8"), who dresses the part persuasively from fedora to trench coat) and his honest partner Tommy Roth (Brent Huff of "I Spy Returns") who is also Carradine's younger brother to collect it. Carradine has yet another younger sibling who gets involved in the plot later and suffers horribly at the hands of the Yakuza. Initially, at the rendezvous to exchange the stature for the money, treacherous Cory double-crosses bad guy Steve (Roger Corman stock player Dick Miller of "Small Soldiers") and his sexy, pistol-packing sidekick Deborah (Laurene Landon of "Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold") at a remote spot in the desert. Cory makes it look like Steve and Deborah pulled the double-cross, when in fact he engineered it and his gullible partner fell for it. No sooner have they apparently dispatched Steve and Deborah than a carload of thugs careen toward them out of the nearby hills. Tommy takes them out with a Vietnam era M-16. Cory wounds Tommy, but Tommy manages to escape in a bullet-riddled car with the statue. Tommy makes it back to older brother Jim's residence, dramatically smashes through the window and falls on Jim's wife (Lois Hamilton of "The Electric Horseman") as they are quarreling about the night-sweating flashbacks that have made Jim so irritable. Of course, neither Burt nor Jim tells the police anything about the statue. They decide to launch their own investigation.

Fred Olen Ray keeps the action moving at a fast clip in this trimly-paced 85 minute melodrama. He sets up the plot in about 30 minutes then has Akira and Jim tangling with each other over not only the statue but also his $100 thousand dollars.
Moments of humor are few and far between in this straight-laced Chinatown shoot-em up. You'll hate Ross Hagen's deceitful private eye, but you'll cheer his just comeuppance in the final scene. X-rated porn star Michelle Bauer has an eye-spinning turn as an exotic dancer in what ranks as the only semi-nude scene in "Armed Response." Mind you, "Armed Response" is NOT a classic, but it doesn't waste time telling its formulaic, hard-edged story. Ray maintains more than a modicum of credibility while he adheres to the conventions of the genre. Lee Van Cleef gets to trade shots with the bad guys but he plays more of a sidekick to Carradine than a leading player. If you look hard enough, you'll spot Fred Olen Ray as one of the bad guys. Atmospheric locations and film noir style lighting enhance this respectable actioneer.