Roddy McDowall

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974, John Hough)

I’m not sure how Dirty Mary Crazy Larry played on its original release—like, did audiences actually sympathize with “leads” Peter Fonda and Susan George—but whatever shine time has scrubbed off it has left something of an endurance test. Fonda and Adam Roarke (who’s more the protagonist than Fonda and often more than George) are a would-be NASCAR team. Fonda’s the driver, Roarke’s his mechanic. There’s not a lot about their history but basically Roarke’s a drunk and Fonda’s just never had a good enough car. Fonda’s got the driving skills to be a champion driver, which are more potential than realized given they drive around a mostly empty Central Valley California and there’s only like two actual chase sequences, albeit decent ones. He just can’t get the speed.

So he and Roarke decide they’re going to rob a supermarket of its cash delivery… by taking the store manager’s wife and daughter hostage and forcing him to open the safe. Roarke is the hostage-taker. He’s really good at being scary. Fonda’s in charge of getting the manager (an uncredited but rather good considering the performance calibers Roddy McDowell) to open the safe. Fonda’s not good at it. The film never explains how they come up with the plan (or target); as grocery store cash delivery robberies go, it’s not the worst plan but… Fonda and Roarke don’t seem to have any concept of possible consequences. Roarke maybe, he just stays quiet about his concerns; Fonda’s an idiot.

George is the local woman he hooks up with the night before the robbery. She tracks him down and refuses to get out of the getaway car and then outsmarts Fonda whenever he tries to ditch her. We later find out she’s an ex-con (serial shoplifting) with nothing better to do than hang with Fonda. When she first ambushes him, she goes on a little about how he’s just afraid because of their great connection the night before… but given the utter lack of chemistry between Fonda and George (and her best line being about his romantic failings)… well, it’s not like Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santea’s screenplay contributes much to the film. In fact, when it’s more surprising when it’s not terrible than when it has the occasional funny line. Deputy Eugene Daniels, who does one of the two chase scenes, is occasionally hilarious but it’s a combination of the bad script, Hough’s inept direction of his actors, and Daniels’s wanting acting chops.

Both Fonda and George are awful. George manages to be more likable because Fonda’s so unlikable, but she’s still terrible. Fonda often acts with his sunglasses on, obscuring his expressiveness… which might be a plus given the film.

Hough’s direction is occasionally incompetent—he and cinematographer Michael D. Marguiles lean into shaky camera work sometimes to the point it’s impossible to see follow a scene—but then he (and Marguiles) will have these great, elaborate long shots of the vehicular mayhem. They work at the vehicular mayhem. Nothing else. Though there’s this one strange perspective shot at the beginning with a car going down a hill where it seems like Hough’s going to try some things.

Even when the film looks good, it’s not trying anything.

The supporting cast lacks goodness but is occasionally mediocre. Kenneth Tobey mildly embarrasses himself as a blowhard sheriff guy. Vic Morrow is an iconoclast captain in the sheriff’s department (it’s unclear if Tobey’s boss or what); Morrow doesn’t carry a badge or a gun or wear any kind of uniform, he’s just a hardworking Cali farmer guy who takes the robbery personally. Apparently because of the kind of car Fonda and Roarke have. It seems like it’s going to mean something. It doesn’t. Nothing means anything in Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, including the title, which seems to be slut-shaming George (or not) and Fonda’s not crazy, he’s just a sociopathic jackass.

But it’s only ninety minutes, moves well, has the occasional good vehicular mayhem sequence, and has one hell of an ending. And Roarke’s often really good. Roarke deserves a better script, director, and so on. Fonda and George? They’re right at home in the dismal.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John Hough; screenplay by Leigh Chapman and Antonio Santean, based on a novel by Richard Unekis; director of photography, Michael D. Margulies; edited by Christopher Holmes; music by Jimmie Haskell; production designer, Philip Leonard; produced by Norman T. Herman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Peter Fonda (Larry), Susan George (Mary Coombs), Adam Roarke (Deke), Vic Morrow (Capt. Everett Franklin), Eugene Daniels (Hank), Kenneth Tobey (Carl Donahue), Lynn Borden (Evelyn Stanton), Adrianne Herman (Cindy Stanton), Janear Hines (Millie), Elizabeth James (Dispatcher), T.J. Castronovo (Steve), James W. Gavin (Helicopter Pilot), and Roddy McDowall (George Stanton).


Hello Down There (1969, Jack Arnold)

Hello Down There is a family comedy. Its target audience is families who want to see a sexy mom Janet Leigh and sexless teenagers. I think it’s for dads who somehow got stuck taking their tweens to the movies in the late sixties? When the movie starts, it almost seems like Leigh’s going to play a big part. She's scared of the water, the movie’s about her husband Tony Randall dragging her into an undersea house to see if a regular American family can inhabit it. Of course, they’re not a regular American family because Randall’s a genius underwater engineer, Leigh’s a burgeoning romance novelist (because she’s a sexy mom), their kids (Kay Cole and Gary Tigerman) are in close-to-signing terrible mainstream hippie rock band, and… actually, no, they don’t have any pets.

Eventually they get a pet for two scenes when they’re living in the underwater house and a seal gets down there and becomes Leigh’s sidekick. It’s kind of a good scene. There’s potential. It never pays off, but potential’s rare in Hello Down There so you take what you can get.

The movie opens with millionaire underwater construction industrialist Jim Backus (in a godawful performance) going down in a submarine to see what his chief designer engineer Randall has been working on. The underwater house. It’ll solve overpopulation problems. Except Backus, being a millionaire industrialist, had no idea what Randall was working on and Backus thinks it’s stupid. Backus likes smarter projects; he loves Ken Berry’s idea to vacuum up the ocean floor and collect all the gold. Because there’s lots of gold there.

Oh, yeah, Hello Down There is for families all right… dumb ones.

Or maybe it’s just for dads who really liked Janet Leigh and needed an excuse to see her in something family-friendly?

Anyway, Randall has to promise Backus he and his family will live down there for thirty days, which Backus assumes is impossible because Leigh’s afraid of water and Backus is a little too interested in Leigh. Because he’s a creep in addition to being an idiot.

Leigh freaks out then goes off for some alone time and comes back in lingerie—chaste lingerie but lingerie—to seduce Randall as her way of apologizing for not getting over the aqua phobia immediately upon his request. They get interrupted by the kids, who don’t want to go because their band is about to hit it big with record producer Roddy McDowell (also godawful but not as embarrassingly as Backus). So they bring the band along. The rest of the band is Richard Dreyfuss, who’s better at lip synching than acting here, and Lou Wagner, who dresses like a court jester hippie and does nothing else.

Will the family make it? Will the band make it? Will there be a disappearing hurricane, dolphins, a shark attack, Tony Randall fighting a shark, Charlotte Rae playing one of her first housekeepers, an underwater rescue sequence, lots of crappy music montages, lots of mansplaining, shirtless Tony Randall separate from shark fight, and Merv Griffin? No spoilers but it’s not like you can just make up such a strange list.

Oh, yeah, there’s also Arnold Stang, who apparently drowns because the movie forgets about him. And a whole subplot about the U.S. Navy being too stupid to figure out there’s the underwater house, even though it presumably took a while to build and you’d think they’d notice because it could be the Soviets or whatever.

On the other hand, why blame screenwriters John McGreevey and Frank Telford… there’s no way to make this one good. It’s a bad production, with lousy music (courtesy Jeff Barry), lousy photography (Clifford H. Poland Jr.), questionable special effects, and occasionally bad, barely mediocre direction from Arnold. Ricou Browning directs the underwater sequences, which are bad when they’re a nature film and boring with establishing shots… but awesome when it’s action. There’s that Tony Randall vs. shark sequence (fingers crossed it was former Creature from the Black Lagoon Browning doing the uncredited underwater stunt work).

Everyone except the kids, who range from bad to worse, and Leigh just mug their way through the film. Randall included. Leigh doesn’t have much to work with, but at least she doesn’t just give up like everyone else. It’s an embarrassing movie, but she’s got nothing to be embarrassed about with it.

As opposed to literally everyone else involved. It tries to be a ninety-minute sitcom and fails. Not even shark fighting and a drunk Rae can save it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Arnold; screenplay by John McGreevey and Frank Telford, based on a story by Art Arthur and Ivan Tors; director of photography, Clifford H. Poland Jr.; edited by Erwin Dumbrille; music by Jeff Barry; produced by George Sherman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Tony Randall (Fred Miller), Janet Leigh (Vivian Miller), Roddy McDowall (Nate Ashbury), Jim Backus (T.R. Hollister), Ken Berry (Mel Cheever), Charlotte Rae (Myrtle Ruth), Kay Cole (Lorrie Miller), Richard Dreyfuss (Harold Webster), Lou Wagner (Marvin Webster), Gary Tigerman (Tommie Miller), Arnold Stang (Jonah), Harvey Lembeck (Sonarman), and Merv Griffin (Himself).



Fright Night (1985, Tom Holland)

So much of Fright Night is humdrum, with the occasional energy pulses whenever Chris Sarandon gets to be vampirish, I didn’t really expect it to get any better. I certainly didn’t expect director Holland to go all out on the special effects or even Roddy McDowall to get such good material. I also didn’t expect Stephen Geoffreys to go from pointless background to constant annoyance; Geoffreys isn’t any good to begin with, so when he gets even worse, it claws. Especially as he gets one of the great effects sequences.

Unfortunately, Holland hasn’t set Fright Night up to be easily saved, not even by effects sequences. Especially not as the technically superior finale lacks much dramatic oomph. Fright Night starts being about William Ragsdale’s curious, then terrified teenager. The part requires someone who can get away not just with being nosy, but a jerk to girlfriend Amanda Bearse. Ragsdale’s got absolutely no charisma. Five minutes in the first act feels like a half hour, as Ragsdale starts to investigate new next door neighbor Sarandon while ignoring Bearse and palling around with Geoffreys. Only it turns out the palling makes Geoffreys miserable and he feels picked on; it can’t be any other characters who pick on him, because there’s no one else in the movie. Holland isn’t interested in directing a high school movie.

There’s the requisite eighties club scene, however. Fright Night does have a club scene. It’s even a good club scene–Sarandon seduces Bearse, while Ragsdale goofs off trying to figure out a payphone. Better photography would’ve helped; Jan Kiesser’s photography is always competent, but never excellent. Still Sarandon and Bearse are good in the scene. Sarandon plays the part of bloodsucker as eighties thoughtful stud well. So well his relationship with his charmless doofus sidekick Jonathan Stark never works. Seeing him have a subplot with Bearse, some character development, it’s nice.

Bearse has a terrible part. She’s got no chemistry with Ragsdale, which would be hard because Ragsdale’s actively unappealing. But she does all right as a reincarnated lady love of a vampire. Of course, it’s kind of creepy since she’s seventeen and Sarandon is forty-three and Holland does nothing to establish Bearse’s character other than her being a prude who’s better that trig than mathematic dummy Ragsdale.

So the two vampire seduction scenes are good. Just a tad too exploitative. Even if you remove the female actor being underage, Holland really doesn’t want to deal with any of the repercussions of the film’s events. Fright Night is a spoofy comedy. It’s also a terrible scary movie. And it’s a special effects spectacular. It’s sometimes exquisite–though in McDowall and Sarandon’s performances. None of the other actors give unqualified good performances; they need stronger direction and Holland apparently doesn’t give it to them. Maybe he’s just in a hurry to the never hinted at special effects finale but even it lacks personality.

The score is another big disconnect. For example, when Ragsdale is suspiciously peeping on Sarandon, Brad Fiedel’s score goes to its synthpop vampire seduction thing. And Holland doesn’t seem to notice it doing nothing for the film or Ragdale’s performance. Ragsdale’s what happens if Billy Peltzer is unlikable.

Oddly enough, the seduction part of the score ends up being the most effective, if only because editor Kent Beyda screws up the rest of Fiedel’s work. Fright Night is not well-edited. Almost never. And, along with the frequent, unchecked bombastic music and Kiesser’s flat photography, the filmmaking itself acts as a barrier. Nowhere near as much as Ragsdale being an unlikable shit (maybe because he’s at least seven years too old for the part), but it does act as a barrier. Fright Night lacks mood. Holland’s all over the place, often competently or better, but his direction is moodless and needs to be quite the opposite.

Also Ragsdale is really, really, really, really bland until Bearse, Geoffreys, and McDowall take over. And Geoffreys is really bland too, but he’s not as damaging the overall experience.

So once McDowall’s part is bigger, Fright Night starts to get better, then it gets good, then it chokes on an epilogue. So after opening too flat to make an impression, Fright Night still ends up being a disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tom Holland; director of photography, Jan Kiesser; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Brad Fiedel; production designer, John DeCuir Jr.; produced by Herb Jaffe; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring William Ragsdale (Charley Brewster), Roddy McDowall (Peter Vincent), Chris Sarandon (Jerry Dandrige), Amanda Bearse (Amy Peterson), Stephen Geoffreys (Ed Thompson), Jonathan Stark (Billy Cole), Art Evans (Detective Lennox), and Dorothy Fielding (Judy Brewster).


The Black Hole (1979, Gary Nelson)

The Black Hole is a weird–and bad–movie. American science fiction usually avoids religion, at least literalizing religion, but Black Hole embraces it. Maybe I shouldn’t spoil it. But it’s from Disney too. It’s a Disney movie with Heaven and Hell.

When the film cuts to Maximilian Schell during these sequences, the film feels like a Fellini knockoff. But it’s not. It’s Disney.

There are even terribly designed cute Disney robots flying around and talking in the voices of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens. McDowell’s not unbearable but the idea of a robot being built to sound like a Western sidekick? It’s idiotic, like most of the film. No one but Schell can endure the dialogue. It’s incredibly bad–all expository for the first half, then the rest of the movie’s a chase and the dialogue’s all declarative.

The declarative is a lot better than the exposition. Robert Forster and Yvette Mimieux can handle the latter. They’re both awful during the first half. Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins and Ernest Borgnine are all terrible throughout; Bottoms being the worst. He never manages a single good delivery.

What makes the film watchable is the special effects. As dumb as the cute robots look, the effects flying them around are fantastic. The miniatures are amazing. The post-production effects–the space ship engines and so on–are awful, but the miniatures are great.

John Barry’s score is half okay, half awful… which is a better percentage than the rest of the picture.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Gary Nelson; screenplay by Jeb Rosebrook and Gerry Day, based on a story by Rosebrook, Bob Barbash and Richard H. Landau; director of photography, Frank V. Phillips; edited by G. Gregg McLaughlin; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Ellenshaw; produced by Ron Miller; released by Buena Vista Distribution Company.

Starring Maximilian Schell (Dr. Hans Reinhardt), Anthony Perkins (Dr. Alex Durant), Robert Forster (Captain Dan Holland), Joseph Bottoms (Lieutenant Charles Pizer), Yvette Mimieux (Dr. Kate McCrae), Ernest Borgnine (Harry Booth), Roddy McDowall (V.I.N.CENT.), Tom McLoughlin (Captain S.T.A.R.) and Slim Pickens (B.O.B.).


Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

Loathe as I am to be glib about a director like Arthur Penn, Dead of Winter comes off like a TNT Original Movie. Penn proves himself–with the exception of maybe one scene and even then it’s awkward because it’s Arthur Penn using Steadicam–almost completely inept at directing a thriller. The script’s hardly anything special and maybe a good deal of the problems come from it, but Penn fails to instill any foreboding into the film. There’s some goofy stuff in the last act (another reason it reminds me of a TV movie is how every single development in the climax is utterly predictable–like a stage play with spotlights on important objects or ideas), but the goofy stuff only hurts it a little; insignificant damage.

The opening scene is bad, poorly handled because of details the viewer isn’t supposed to know yet, but Dead of Winter recovers immediately following. Mary Steenburgen and William Russ make a good couple–though their marital status comes as a bit of a surprise later on–and they help the film find its feet. The scenes with Steenburgen as the working actress (soaps and commercials) are good. So good, I didn’t even notice Canada was standing in for New York (which might be Penn’s greatest achievement with this one). Even Roddy McDowell is good at the beginning. Later–everything with Dead of Winter is later, because of how poorly the script handles the big reveal–the script cuts McDowell’s character loose and he gets progressively hammier.

As the plot developed, I got the feeling Penn was going for a modified haunted house thriller. He doesn’t. He plays the entire thing straight and that approach is why it’s a TV movie. It’s not even a glorified TV movie, given the cast. As good as Jan Rubes is in the film as the villain, his best moments are probably off-screen; the script hints at his deviousness, but never shows it.

I really do want to give away the film’s final plunge into risibility, but it is a surprise and Dead of Winter is–kind of–worth seeing. Watching Penn fail is painful, but it’s an interesting flop.

But the biggest problem with the film is the script and its handling of Steenburgen’s character. The viewer is supposed to believe Mary Steenburgen is a complete fool. Not just a complete fool, but a complete fool of a New Yorker who somehow managed not to end up dead in a trash can during her time there. Steenburgen’s character’s so stupid, she’d have trouble opening doors. But, only when it comes to her dupability. The rest of the time it’s Mary Steenburgen and she’s with it.

The character’s guilelessness throughout the film makes the third act impossible to believe, when Dead of Winter gets around to having that third act all thrillers need to have.

It was clear from the start there was something off with the film, but it maintained a decent mediocrity–combined with Penn’s bewildering direction–until the last twenty-five minutes or so. Then it just got worse and worse.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Arthur Penn; written by Marc Shmuger and Mark Malone; director of photography, Jan Weincke; edited by Rick Shaine; music by Richard Einhorn; production designer, Bill Brodie; produced by John Bloomgarden and Shmuger; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Mary Steenburgen (Katie McGovern), Roddy McDowall (Mr. Murray), Jan Rubes (Dr. Joseph Lewis), William Russ (Rob Sweeney), Ken Pogue (Officer Mullavy), Wayne Robson (Officer Huntley) and Mark Malone (Roland McGovern).


Evil Under the Sun (1982, Guy Hamilton)

As innocuous as Evil Under the Sun can get–and expecting anything else from it seems unintended–the film does have a slightly discomforting feel about it. Perhaps it’s the extraordinary level of benignity, but at times, it really does seem like Peter Ustinov (as Hercule Poirot) is going to be murdered by each and every person in the film. Murder on the Orient Express, not to ruin it for anyone, along with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, makes Agatha Christie suspect. If there’s no good way out, she’ll just push on through… M. Night Shyamalan owes more to her than anyone else, in terms of wasting people’s engagement with a story and characters, anyway.

The difference between an Agatha Christie novel and an Agatha Christie filmic adaptation, as I just got done telling my fiancée, is simple. It’s about the actors, the location, and the running time. Evil Under the Sun runs around two hours and was filmed on a beautiful island in the Mediterranean. Ustinov’s amusing–though not as funny as when Ustinov’s really being funny, Maggie Smith and Denis Quilley have some good scenes, and James Mason has fun. No one’s particularly bad–Diana Rigg’s supposed to be incredibly annoying–though Nicholas Clay’s accent appears and intensifies after a certain point. It’s harmless, even if it isn’t particularly interesting.

Evil Under the Sun has an interesting structure–there’s no murder for the first hour. Then there’s a half hour of questioning, maybe a little less, then there’s a ten minute reveal and the end. While the scenery is pretty and the cast is okay, there’s nothing particularly dynamic about it. The film keeps the audience with the promise of the murder, as I imagine the book does, and offers them little else to do with their time. Guy Hamilton’s direction does very little with interiors–outside it’s pretty, inside it’s boring, but there are two days inside before anything happens and it could use some oomph. After a certain point, deep in the monotony of the supporting cast’s dramatics, I’d forgotten Ustinov was in the movie.

The end payoff, as delivered by Ustinov, makes the experience moderately worthwhile. Certainly nothing to watch again, but not a complete waste. Screenwriter Anthony Shaffer wrote The Wicker Man, so he’s obviously capable of a good twist and a good end, but the adherence to the novel really handicaps him….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Guy Hamilton; screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by Agatha Christie; director of photography, Christopher Challis; edited by Richard Marden; music by Cole Porter; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Peter Ustinov (Hercule Poirot), Colin Blakely (Sir Horace Blatt), Jane Birkin (Christine Redfern), Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern), Maggie Smith (Daphne Castle), Roddy McDowall (Rex Brewster), Sylvia Miles (Myra Gardener), James Mason (Odell Gardener), Denis Quilley (Kenneth Marshall), Diana Rigg (Arlena Marshall) and Emily Hone (Linda Marshall).


Behind the Planet of the Apes (1998, Kevin Burns and David Comtois)

I thought the Planet of the Apes festival could use a capstone, since it’s certainly not for sure I’ll make it through enough of Tim Burton’s remake to post about it. And the fiancée has no interest in that one, so it’ll be a while before I get around to it. There are good films to watch before it. I rented Behind the Planet of the Apes a little bit confused about its origins. I remember it (it aired on AMC and I watched some of it), but it’s not in the new Apes box set from Fox, so I figured it was an independent documentary. As it turns out, it is from Fox, which gives it great access to lovely conceptual art (something I can’t ever get enough of), interview subjects, and clips. There are lots of clips. Behind the Planet of the Apes summarizes every one of the movies, spending the most time on the first and then gradually less and less on the other films.

As an actual documentary, Behind is a joke. My review posts of the films make it clear I was never an Apes fan so I really wanted Behind to explain the “phenomenon” to me. It did (the Apes films were intended for kids), but it never went further. Obviously there were audience and critical reactions to these films, but Behind only makes off-hand references. The main force is the summarizing, along with a lengthy look at the production of the first film (but, sadly, nothing on post-production). Had Behind just covered the first film, I imagine it would have been more interesting and a more cohesive experience. The film ends with a brief discussion of Fox’s marketing campaign to tie in with the TV series, but nothing about the producer’s 150 page production idea guide he had for the first film. Because there’s never any substantial reference to the actual impact of these films (the film historian simply advertises the films for Fox), it feels like no one ever saw them before this documentary presented them, twenty-five years later. The producers talk about the cultural impact, but it’s not evident. I don’t expect a lot from a promotional documentary, but it really plays like an infomercial.

All complaints aside, the film does present some diverting information about the making of the films and filmmaking in general. The art director, William Creber has a lot of interesting stuff to talk about and some of the directors have things to say, but they hardly get any screen time. I think the first time I watched it, I hadn’t seen Planet of the Apes in recallable memory, which made it mildly compelling (seeing a bunch of films in summary) and I did remember that factoid about Conquest filming at Century City. However, having just watched all the films, this promotional documentary has brought me no closer to understanding why Apes has such a following. It does nothing to explain what I’m “missing,” which leads me to wonder if I’m not missing anything….

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Kevin Burns and David Comtois; written by Brian Anthony, Burns and Comtois; director of photography, Cory Geryak; edited by Dustin Ebsen, Steve Rasch and Comtois; produced by Shelley Lyons; released by 20th Century Fox.

Hosted by Roddy McDowall.


Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973, J. Lee Thompson), the extended version

I actually had some hopes for the Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the last film in the series, mostly because J. Lee Thompson did such a good job directing the previous entry. Except for not knowing when he’s getting boring, it doesn’t seem like the same J. Lee Thompson directed both films, however. Battle for the Planet of the Apes is not the worst film in the series, since there’s not much worse than Beneath, but it’s still bad. Real bad. On one hand, it’s stupid and poorly written. On the other, there are some visible signs of conceptual failings. The script never provides a believable ape society, nor does Thompson know how to shoot the scenes between the apes. If one were so inclined, he or she could sit and list all of the film’s contradictory items, but I can’t imagine why a person would want to.

Most visibly missing is Paul Dehn, who concocted the story, but two of Roger Corman’s screenwriters (and not John Sayles) wrote the actual script. Gone, therefore, are Dehn’s well-written conflicted human beings. There are no regular human beings anymore since the film takes place immediately following a nuclear holocaust, but the screenwriters (John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington) don’t even manage to get any decent human conflict out of the film. Not even for the apes, who are center-stage, much like Beneath. Austin Stoker shows up as the human and he’s fine. I remember thinking he was doing rather well considering the film’s cheapness and silliness. Roddy McDowell’s in this one again and he’s not even acting anymore, just doing an act. Even his facial mannerisms are sloppy. Paul Williams probably gives the best costumed performance and Claude Akins the worst, though Akins’s gorilla is so poorly written (and unbelievably conceived), it’s not all his fault. The most embarrassing performance award goes to John Huston, who introduces and closes Battle from the future (of the future).

Since Battle is so long and boring (partially due to Thompson’s poorly paced action scenes, but mostly because it’s so uninteresting), the viewer’s mind has some spare time while watching and I spent mine wondering who the film’s makers intended to enjoy it. Obviously, Planet of the Apes has a following, but this film is so different from the other films in style, I just couldn’t figure it out. I mean, that little hope I had disappeared the moment John Huston showed up (the first shot). Had I been seeing this film in the theater in 1973, I would have gotten up and walked out. Maybe laughed a little first.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes is a bad idea, poorly written, poorly directed, filmed. Poorly produced too. If the writing or the directing had been all right, the film might have been somehow interesting (like the previous entry, Conquest). However, without any help, it’s just an oddity. It’s not even bad enough to be a “must see,” like Beneath. It’s just bad and there, like a TV show you’ve never heard of rerun at four o’clock in the morning.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by J. Lee Thompson; screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington, from a story by Paul Dehn; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Alan Jaggs and John C. Horger; music by Leonard Rosenman; produced by Arthur P. Jacobs and Frank Capra Jr.; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roddy McDowall (Caesar), Claude Akins (Aldo), Natalie Trundy (Lisa), Severn Darden (Kolp), Lew Ayres (Mandemus), John Huston (The Lawgiver), Paul Williams (Virgil), Andrew Knight (Mutant on Motorcycle), Austin Stoker (MacDonald) and Bob Porter (Cornelius).


Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972, J. Lee Thompson)

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is about a bunch of ape slaves overpowering their human masters. Any film with a thirty second recap of the previous sequel by Ricardo Montalban has to be at least amusing, but Conquest is actually better than amusing (until the actual revolt begins). Since the film didn’t have any real budget, it shot entirely (I think entirely) at Fox’s then-new Century City complex–because it looked future-like. The film opens with a great fifteen or twenty minute, almost real-time sequence of Ricardo Montalban walking around with Roddy McDowell’s talking ape. Bruce Surtees shot Conquest and it’s a beautiful looking film. Director J. Lee Thompson does well in the confines too, making Century City’s stark impersonality look interesting. Montalban owns those first twenty minutes and sets the film up better than it turns out.

The problem is the eventual slave revolt. The acting is excellent across the board–Hari Rhodes as the sympathetic black guy (since Conquest is from 1972, there’s a lot more racial honesty than I’ve seen in a film in years), Severn Darden as the bad guy, and Don Murray as the sort-of bad guy. Murray’s got a few mouthfuls of exposition to get out and, while he doesn’t get them out as well as Montalban, he still does an admirable job. Paul Dehn wrote Conquest (he also wrote the unspeakably awful Beneath and the superior Escape) and he does layer some complexities into the characters, Murray’s especially. Unfortunately, Dehn doesn’t give McDowell as the ape leader any complexity. Once the revolt starts, the film becomes visually dynamic–to a point–the scenes of the revolt are good, but the dramatic thrust of the film is gone. Since the ending is predetermined for a large part, there’s not much interesting going on.

McDowell’s the film’s second biggest problem. His character makes a huge transition in addition to going from being the protagonist to being the subject of Conquest and he doesn’t pull it off. That failing isn’t really McDowell’s, but the script’s. There’s only so much one could do with a film like Conquest–first, that predetermined outcome, second, the single talking ape (as opposed to… I don’t know, two. Two would have done it), and then the cast of human characters. Conquest doesn’t pull many punches about whose side it’s own either. There are a bunch of white guys in jack-boots and SS outfits giving black people shit and beating defenseless animals. There’s a visual metaphor, but it doesn’t go much further, which is kind of nice. Conquest needed to embrace what it had more, instead of working blindly toward its ending. Still, it’s a great looking film. Thompson’s use of the limited set, along with Surtees’s lighting, is beautiful.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by J. Lee Thompson; screenplay by Paul Dehn; director of photography, Bruce Surtees; edited by Marjorie Fowler and Alan Jaggs; music by Tom Scott; produced by Arthur P. Jacobs; released by 20th Century-Fox.

Starring Roddy McDowall (Caesar), Don Murray (Breck), Natalie Trundy (Lisa), Hari Rhodes (MacDonald) and Ricardo Montalban (Armando).


Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971, Don Taylor)

I occasionally–or often, depending on the films I’m going through–start a post saying how much I was dreading the film and how well it turned out. Usually, these are films I used to love and haven’t seen in ten years and was worried about them. I wasn’t dreading Escape from the Planet of the Apes, I was wholly anticipating suffering for ninety minutes. I rented the Apes box set from Nicheflix and, after the first two–especially the second one, since Paul Dehn wrote both it and this film–I was desperate to avoid Escape, to avoid continuing the series. I rented it on a lark anyhow, just because Nicheflix’s price was great for six movies.

For those who don’t know, who somehow missed Escape on TV every other weekend throughout the 1990s, it takes place in modernity (1973), and features Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter (as the apes from the first two movies). They travel back in time. Nicely, the film doesn’t even bother getting into the “science” of it, not even wasting time on that sort of puffery. Not to say Escape is a lean film. The first couple acts are lean, but towards the end it starts to drag. Roddy McDowell really impresses in this film, while Kim Hunter doesn’t quite work. She has more to do and the audience is supposed to be sympathetic towards her because of the other movies. McDowell isn’t treated so nonchalantly and he provides a funny and touching performance.

But Escape doesn’t work because of the apes, it works because of the people. This film is not a serious rumination on time traveling apes. It’s a somewhat serious film, but it knows how to get the audience going, but engaging their expectations for future apes in modernity. There’s a hilarious montage of the two going around and getting dressed up (speaking all the latest colloquialisms too). It’s got a playful 1970s Jerry Goldsmith score, probably the most playful thing I’ve ever heard from him (and the best) and a lot of the film is just about having fun. Maybe not laughing out loud, but being amused. The serious parts come when the filmmakers realized they needed a conclusion, so some scientist decides the apes need to go. The scientist, played by Eric Braeden, gives the best performance in the film. Escape introduces some real internal conflict into the film series–because the scientist goes nuts and he gets it. He recognizes he’s lost it.

There are some other good performances, mostly smaller ones (Ricardo Montalban has a fun cameo and William Windom is good). The secondary male lead, Bradford Dillman, is good too, but his character is nice and nothing more.

The direction (by Don Taylor) seems bigger than the first two films in the series, which it shouldn’t. It feels more epic, but it’s really just in that early 1970s style, when extreme long shots were big in mainstream movies. A lot of it looks like a TV show, but a good one. Taylor also gets the humor and knows how to direct the audience’s attention to it without having to bonk them over the head.

I’m not sure at what point during the film I realized it was actually successful and good, but it didn’t take too long. From the opening credits, it becomes obvious it’s going to be entertaining, and while Kim Hunter’s failure to create a truly sympathetic character hurts it, Braeden makes up for that absence but giving the film a great antagonist. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’d be understandable to anyone who hasn’t seen the first two films… However, it might actually be worth it for Escape.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Don Taylor; written by Paul Dehn, based upon characters created by Pierre Boulle; director of photography, Joseph Biroc; edited by Marion Rothman; music by Jerry Goldsmith; produced by Arthur P. Jacobs; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Roddy McDowall (Cornelius), Kim Hunter (Zira), Bradford Dillman (Dr. Lewis Dixon), Natalie Trundy (Dr. Stephanie Branton), Eric Braeden (Dr. Otto Hasslein), William Windom (The President), Sal Mineo (Milo), Ricardo Montalban (Armando) and Marshall Stewart (Arthur, the zoo keeper).


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