The Outsiders: Mongo’s Back in Town (1971) and Lifeguard (1976)

Mongo00011

Joe Don Baker is introduced in Mongo’s Back in Town getting off a bus in San Pedro, a scar still pulsing on his left temple. In Lifeguard, Rick (Sam Elliott) strolls in a tight white t-shirt and shades to his perch on a Santa Monica Bay beach. Each is an act of refusal. The hitman Mongo is intent on destroying himself and his hometown, while the thirty-something Rick has rejected bourgeois career building in favor of life as a beach bum.  Mongo’s Back in Town is a hard-boiled noir made for TV, first broadcast on CBS in 1971 (now available on DVD). Lifeguard is a relaxed Paramount character study that moves with the sunburnt sloth one feels after a long day at the beach, and is available on DVD from the Warner Archive. Though they exist in vastly different genres, both aim for a kind of stasis, one in which its people prefer to watch than move.

Mongo00003

Mongo’s Back in Town was adapted from a novel by E. Richard Johnson, a convicted murderer and armed robber who spent most of his life in Minnesota State Prison. He won the 1968 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for his debut novel Silver Street, and Mongo was his equally well-received follow up. He wrote seven books in four years of imprisonment before escaping, succumbing to drug addiction, and getting recaptured. The terse teleplay by Herman Miller (Coogan’s Bluff) feels very faithful to Johnson’s book in its bleak and withholding nature. The basic story is straightforward but willfully opaque in its details. Mongo is called home by his estranged brother Mike (Charles Cioffi) to knock off one of his rivals. The reasons are murky, cloaked in brief, diversionary bits of dialogue. The film reveals its intentions with its opening sequence, six minutes of wordless action that introduces the characters.

Mongo00007

Joe Don Baker arrives in town with nothing, not even an overcoat to protect him from the sheets of rain. He smashes the cheap knick knacks being sold by a blind peddler. The camera then follows the peddler, who enters a rundown strip club. As the floor is scrubbed by a little person in the extreme foreground, the peddler whispers a message to Mike that we cannot hear. Mike then climbs the staircase into his upstairs apartment. Upon opening the door to his bedroom, a deck of cards set up like dominos tumble down in a line to his wife Angel’s (Anne Francis) feet. It’s a willfully strange sequence, one portraying the city as a network of criminality laid down at the feet of Angel. Whether this sequence was orchestrated by director Marvin J. Chomsky, DP Archie R. Dalzell or producer Bob Banner, it’s an effectively disorienting way to set up the knotty plot to come.

Mongo00018

The countervailing forces are the investigating detectives, played with exhausted Kojakery by Telly Savalas and a callow Martin Sheen (sporting the same pompadour as in Badlands (’73). Lieutenant Tolstad (Savalas) is burnt out from working this scummy precinct, represented in exteriors of dive bars, peep shows and strip clubs. He seems as nihilistic as Mongo, who flicks lit matches at his brother and picks up runaway coal miner’s daughter Vikki (Sally Field) at a diner, only to cruelly play with her emotions. In the triangulated climax, Vikki is torn between these two used up men, her face tensed up, staring at the phone booth that could call Tolstad, and at the club doors that Mongo is about to bust out of. In the end, like all of the characters in this strange, bitter little film, she chooses apathy. Fate decides for her, as it did for E. Richard Johnson.

Lifeguard00011

Lifeguard is an altogether more optimistic enterprise, based on the summers screenwriter Ron Koslow spent at southern California beaches. Rick (Sam Elliott) is an aging well-tanned lothario, closing in on a decade-long career as a lifeguard. While all his old friends have become salesman of insurance or luxury cars, he still spends his days at the beach and his nights with stewardesses. He has successfully avoided the responsibilities and stresses of adult life, content with staring at the ocean instead of his bank account. His apartment is a bachelor pad par excellence, festooned with surf posters and shag carpet, while he spends his free time on the highway in his Corvette Stingray. His parents fret about when he will settle down and stop wasting his life. An old friend offers him a job at his Porsche dealership, while he meets his old flame Cathy (Anne Archer) at the high school reunion, at which he’s embarrassed to admit his profession hasn’t changed since graduation.

Lifeguard00018

In an interview archived at the Director’s Guild of America, Petrie bemoaned the marketing of Lifeguard, the poster depicting big bosomed bimbos flanking a caricature of Elliott, as if it were another Porky’s. It was a modest success, netting $505,000 in profits, though it did not launch Elliott’s career as a leading man, deserving though he was. Disregard the bad taste marketing and the schmaltzy score, as Lifeguard is an understated and wise film about the rejection of adulthood. Director Daniel Petrie lets the story develop its own shaggy tempo, and elicits a grounded, engaging performance from Elliott. He exudes a bodily calm, his gestures an extension of his surfer-Buddhist ethos.

Lifeguard00005

Cathy is a recent divorcee and bourgeois striver, eager to envelop him in luxury goods. The other woman in his life is Wendy (Kathleen Quinlan), a 17-year-old girl and fellow outcast, eager to escape her bickering parents and live on the beach with Rick. She is a vision of the youth and freedom he cherishes, though he realizes it is only an image. He can only achieve the lifestyle he seeks in solitude. So he ends where he began, aging alone at his lifeguard post, scanning the ocean for signs of life and death.

 

9 Responses The Outsiders: Mongo’s Back in Town (1971) and Lifeguard (1976)
Posted By Arthur : March 18, 2014 4:13 pm

Yes, Lifeguard was an excellent film. I did not know that it was a theatrical release. I thought it was a made for TV film. Just as film noir has become a celebrated genre. One day will there be a recognized genre for films like Lifeguard and Duel and other low budget, little noticed, yet quite effective 1970s motion pictures?

Posted By david hartzog : March 18, 2014 4:48 pm

Very interesting take on films I have not seen since the 70s.

Posted By david hartzog : March 18, 2014 4:53 pm

I meant to add that I am going to order these. Thanks for the posting.

Posted By Ned Merrill : March 18, 2014 6:43 pm

Really fine evaluation of LIFEGUARD, particularly your last paragraph. I need to see MONGO now.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : March 18, 2014 11:01 pm

Mongo i’ve never seen,but Lifeguard i did see in a theater,it was marketed as a kind of beach movie,like a drive-in exploitation variation of Shampoo with the protagonist questioning his life..everyone had that mid-70′s blow dried look….i do remember kind of liking it,or i wouldn’t have remembered it all these years later…Mongo i’d like to see,Lifeguard i might watch again if it showed up on TCM Underground…

Posted By Susan Doll : March 19, 2014 4:55 pm

Seeing Lifeguard in the theater when it was released made me a life-long Sam Elliott fan.

Posted By george : March 21, 2014 1:54 am

LIFEGUARD was advertised like it was softcore porn. My take was that it was aimed at teen girls who wanted to look at a bare-chested hunk (Elliott). So I avoided it. Saw it years later on TV and it was a pretty good character study.

Posted By david hartzog : March 27, 2014 4:18 am

Received Mongo, and it is very good, neonoir on a stick.

Posted By swac44 : April 23, 2014 8:14 pm

Petrie sure had an interesting career, on the big and small screens, with the successive features Resurrection and Fort Apache, The Bronx as its peak (and probably Sybil as his major TV achievement). If you can find it, I recommend his autobiographical film The Bay Boy, about growing up in Glace Bay, Cape Breton, featuring a fine performance by a young Kiefer Sutherland in the title role.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Australian CInema  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1960s  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movie titles  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  Swashbucklers  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies