Posted by gregferrara on November 10, 2013
In case you missed it, one of the best action thrillers of the seventies aired at 3:45 a.m., EST, on TCM. The movie is The Slams and it stars Jim Brown as a character trying to get out of the slams (prison) and back onto the streets where he can get a hold of the money he was cheated out of in a double-cross. It just so happens I wrote up The Slams for TCM a couple of years ago (you can read the article here) and will take any opportunity I can to promote it again. As I wrote at the time, “The Slams is damn good but doesn’t get the kind of attention it should because most folks write it off, sight unseen, as an exploitation film, a term used too many times to dismiss exceptional movies made on low-budgets with niche appeal.” I read that again and started thinking about how many movies released to little or no fanfare have become personal favorites over the years.
The fact is, when it comes to a movie’s success, I want it both ways. I want the movies I like to have so little audience interest that I’m the only one in the theater but, at the same time, I want the movies to be successful enough that movies like them keep getting made. It’s a ridiculous idea but I’ve found a good compromise over the years: seeing matinees. Matinees usually afford me the opportunity to have a theater to myself, or at the very least, among so few people that it feels like it. But even big-budget, hugely successful movies can have a small audience at any given matinee. What really appeals to me is the movie that never succeeded, either at the matinee or the Friday night showing, but is wildly entertaining nonetheless. The kind of movie, like The Slams, where one wonders, “Why wasn’t this successful?” In addition to The Slams, I’d like to offer up three titles that did little to no business at the box office and likewise had no surge in popularity on tv, cable or video/dvd/streaming in the years since.
First up is one of my all time favorites in this category, the Albert Brooks 1979 mini-masterpiece, Real Life. I watched it again for the fourth or fifth time last year and, again, couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t more famous. The movie is an early mockumentary (spoofing a then well known television documentary, An American Family) made at a time when, outside of Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, mockumentaries were hard to come by. Albert Brooks plays a fictionalized version of himself setting out to document the life of one American family, the Yeagers, headed up by Warren Yeager, played by Charles Grodin. The first quarter of the movie shows the family audition process and the hilarious rationale for why they chose one family over another. It also contains this absurd quote, spoken to the camera by Brooks in an effort to impress the audience with how exhaustive the family testing was: ”If these tests could be converted into eggs, it would be enough to feed a city the size of St. Louis for more than two years on a two-egg-per-person per week basis. Sound complicated ? lt was, and very expensive.” Maybe I’m crazy but there’s something really wonderful about not only converting the man hours into egg consumption but then limiting that consumption to two eggs per person per week to stretch it out to two years. The movie is filled with moments like that, including the wonderful explanation of the special cameras they use (“Only six of these cameras were ever made. Only five of them ever worked. We have four of those.”). Really, Real Life is a low box office champ.
Next up is The Love Goddesses, a 1965 documentary that is fortunately available through Criterion. The Love Goddesses is old school documentary. The kind where there are no talking heads or interviews, just clips and a narrator. And I love it. I love it because it contains wonderful clips from beginning to end, the kind that are increasingly relegated to one or two second shots near the beginning of the annual Oscar ceremony montages that now do their best to cram everything from before 1990 into the first 10 seconds of a three minute montage. I used to love the Oscar ceremony montages but they’ve become quite dull in recent years. Anything classic gets a quick nod by using its most famous scene (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” “I coulda been a contender,” “You talkin’ to me?” etc) before they get around to all the clips from movies from the last twenty five years with a focus on the last ten. But The Love Goddesses, a documentary about all the great goddesses of cinema, from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe, has clips that don’t get shown anymore and the clips from the Mae West section alone are worth the price of admission.
Finally, I present Chase a Crooked Shadow, with Anne Baxter, Richard Todd and Herbert Lom. It’s a nice little mystery thriller that has one of those great title cards before the closing credits pleading with the audience not to reveal the twist at the end of the movie. Unfortunately, the secret seems to have been kept a little too well as it never turned out to be the hit the producers expected. The story starts with Kimberly Prescott (Anne Baxter) getting a visit from her brother, Ward (Richard Todd) at her Costa Brava villa one night, unexpectedly. The problem? Her brother died in a car accident two years prior. But this isn’t some “he’s back from the dead” story. Oh no. The problem that Kimberly immediately encounters is that everyone agrees that Ward never died at all. Car accident? Never happened. She goes to the police to get this brother impostor out of her life but everything they check out says her brother never died in a car accident at all and that that’s him. She even gets their uncle, played by Alexander Knox, to come to Spain to tell them all her brother died but, instead, he takes one look at Ward and says, “Yep, that’s him. By the way, what are you talking about? Ward never died in any accident.” Suffice it to say, she begins to suspect she’s going crazy. But is she? It’s a great thriller that had great black and white photography along the coast of Costa Brava and a satisfying finish to a suspenseful mystery.
Sometimes, a movie that is relatively unknown or unheralded is unknown or unheralded for a reason: It stinks. But a lot of the time, it simply gets lost in the noise of everything else coming out. From Hollywood alone, hundreds of movies get released every year and there are always a few small ones that pass by unnoticed that bring great pleasure to those who discover them. I hope many more get listed in the comments because when it comes to the movies, discovery’s always a good thing.
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