Bandolero!

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Available via ScreenArchives.com;
Twilight Time;
Western;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13.’
Stars James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, George Kennedy. 

Say, what did mom and dad look like? This is the unavoidable stumper posed by 1968’s Bandolero! when we’re handed the proposition of James Stewart and Dean Martin cast as brothers — this, apparently, after someone either shook or stirred the gene pool with a mighty big swizzle stick. Of course, these were the days when John Wayne and Michael Anderson Jr. (respectively 56 and 22 at time) had played bros as well just three years earlier in The Sons of Katie Elder, proving that these two siblings’ own folks did not want for protracted action on the range. But to argue the other side, did you want to see Stewart or Wayne in a ’60s Western or Alex Cord? And besides, if you went by Wayne and Stewart’s advanced ages alone when they made The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance before seeing it, you’d never know it was a great movie.

Bandolero! isn’t anywhere close to great, but it is on the higher side of drive-in boilerplate adequate, and nothing could have kept me away from a Stewart-Martin pairing in 1968. And in what’ll likely be a surprise for many to hear (as it was to me), Larry McMurty himself must have liked this film a lot because he borrowed some of the character names and situations when he wrote Lonesome Dove. At a time when 20th Century-Fox was fast depleting a lot of its Sound of Music haul on a lot of big-budget projects that tanked, here were Jimmy and Dino offering (for them) unusual characterizations against the usual backdrop of the era’s Western character-actor pretty faces: Dub Taylor, Denver Pyle, Don “Red” Barry, Rudy Diaz and the like. And for a legitimate pretty face, there was also Raquel Welch, at a time when her One Million Years B.C. poster adorned more college dorm walls than post-party-time Thunderbird upchuck. That couldn’t have hurt the grosses — and in fact, Bandolero! proved to be solid small-town fare, though I seriously wonder if it did as well as the engagingly enthusiastic commentary by Tony Latino, Lee Pfeiffer and Paul Scrabo (film buff extraordinaires when it comes to  All Things Rat Pack) says on this new and extremely good-looking Blu-ray’s bonus feature.

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The major surprise here is that Martin plays his role as an habitual outlaw responsible for the bank robbery deaths of townsfolk deaths totally straight, and this was at a time when his Thursday night NBC variety hour highlighted him as the consummate tuxedoed jester. In fact, it was fairly unusual for him to play a villain of any kind, though this film was sandwiched between two late-career Westerns in which he did as well: Rough Night in Jericho (so reprehensible in this one that he gives Jean Simmons a tough time) and Showdown. A lesser surprise here but still a bit out of left field is a Stewart performance that’s alternately twinkle-eyed and dead serious, which somewhat reflects the picture’s uncertain tone, There are some funny early touches involving Stewart disguising himself as a hangman — before a grim final quarter where the body count piles up.

Tossed into this an unlikely Welch, cast as former prostitute who’s just been widowed by the richest fogey around and sitting on a lot money (which, interestingly, isn’t pursued as a plot point). After the post-bankjob Martin and his grungy gang escape the gallows with a major assist from Older Brother, Welch by fluke joins the getaway, where it’s inevitably rough on the Texas-to-Mexico desert trail. Even so, and after days of this, her hair looks great, face looks great and the great William Clothier’s ornery camera momentarily reveals that she’s wearing pantyhose in an attempted rape scene. No wonder Dino is smitten, as is a sheriff played by George Kennedy. Good luck on the latter yearning, though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Kennedy later did get to make out on screen with Bibi Andersson in The Concorde … Airport ’79. Kennedy and Andersson: It kind of reminds me of the time Sandra Bernhard was on Letterman and noted how much she wanted to see 1986’s Delta Force because  “Chuck Norris and Hanna Schygulla don’t work together that often.” (Geez, George Kennedy was in that one, too, as was Joey Bishop; I’d better pull the old DVD out of my jeans closet.)

Martin and Welch had some history. The bonus commentary trio mention the YouTube-available clip from the 1979 Oscarcast (honoring ’78 releases) when a slurring Dino got so gamey with his statuesque co-presenter that she got embarrassed and tried to move on. But there’d also been the classic “Hollywood Palace” show of 1964 — the same one where Martin dissed the Rolling Stones on their first U.S. TV appearance and introduced “Everybody Loves Somebody,” whose 45 had been in out in stores for such a short time that he said they “haven’t even punched the  holes in it yet.” At show’s end, a pre-stardom Welch came out (introduced as simply “Raquel”) with Donald O’Connor, and Martin spent the entire interlude looking down her dress. This was not exactly “Omnibus.”

Cinematographer Clothier was a constant enhancer of films with and by John Ford, John Wayne, Stewart and Bandolero! director Andrew V. McLaglen, and I was glad to hear Messrs. Latino, Pfeiffer and Scrabo note that even the intentionally drab Liberty Valance is actually superbly shot in terms of shadows and lighting (as when Wayne emerges from the alley in the climax). And if the movie by itself isn’t enough to offer a hint why Jerry Goldsmith was one of the real go-to composers of the day, someone in that trio rattles off Goldsmith’s stellar credits from this same general period, and you wonder how the guy even had time to shave in the morning.

Both the robbers and Kennedy’s unenthusiastic posse become predictable targets of the title’s gringo-hating Mexican Marauders, which likely would make Bandolero! a favorite in the White House viewing room were Trump not the first president since, like, Polk not to watch movies in the WH (whatever you want to say, Nixon was movie-crazy, and not just for Patton). Also doing their part to up the corpse quotient is the crew of lowlifes who make up Martin’s gang (to brother Stewart’s chagrin). These include Sean McClory, who looks as if he never left that Irish pub in Ford’s The Quiet Man, a cantankerous old slug played by Will Geer and the latter’s cretinous son, who should have been put down not long after his birth.

The movie isn’t distinguished, but in some ways it’s a mild curio, and this Twilight Time release can serve as a demonstration Blu-ray of how a Panavison DeLuxe Color Western of the late ’60s would have looked on its best pre-release mint-print day (say, in Fox’s old New York critics’ screening room that was on or around Tenth Avenue, the one where I saw Rex Reed make a dismissive gesture on the way out of Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). I appreciate that the commentators here love their red-meat cinema — the same trio is great on Twilight Time’s release of the Sinatra-in-Miami toughie Tony Rome — but let’s just say that every movie and every person would love to be as lauded with same vigor these enthusiasts throw Bandolero!’s way. This is all well and good, but even before we get to foreign releases or co-productions released earlier in other countries, 1968 was the source of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Petulia, Rosemary’s Baby, Madigan, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Faces, Bullitt, Night of the Living Dead, Pretty Poison and Monterey Pop. It’s hardly the biggest deal in the world, but let’s allow our historical dimensions to take a deep breath.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Wild Heart’ and ‘Bandolero!’

Strait-Jacket

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Shout! Factory;
Horror;
$22.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Joan Crawford, Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, George Kennedy.

The pairing of Joan Crawford with William Castle (the producer-director-carny barker who much later inspired Joe Dante’s Matinee) was always destined to be a marriage made in a burg you wouldn’t want to be in — no matter how much you might be willing enough to give any movie that exploited the point a shot in theaters. (Or, more likely in this case, drive-ins, except maybe for the fact that Strait-Jacket was a January release.) It’s just a guess, but when you’ve taken up residence in a place where a scraggly, stubbled George Kennedy is just outside cutting the heads of chickens, we’re not talking a Lassie or Flipper kind of milieu.

Of course, the very title itself kind of suggests at least the beginnings of what’ll ensue, in that Crawford has returned home to live with her brother, his wife and her now grown-up daughter (Diane Baker) on a California chicken farm after having spent 20 years locked up for having taken an ax to the head of her wayward husband (Lee Majors in his screen debut). As a flashback result, a much younger version of Baker got a real eyeful while Crawford’s actions led to authorities to deck her out for a while in the title garb. By now, though, all she wants is to live in peace as long as, apparently, she’s allowed to dress and palm herself off as someone 20 years younger than she is. This leads to a truly amazing scene where she boozily puts the make on her daughter’s bland fiancé played by John Anthony Hayes (who?) — even to the point of putting her fingers in his mouth. But we’re talking, after all, about a Joan Crawford picture, and what Joan wanted to do she did even down to prominent visual placement of Pepsi products in certain scenes. This is because her husband had famously been a Pepsi exec, which a) helped land her a seat on the cola company’s board; and b) inspired a Bob Hope Oscarcast crack that I sensed she didn’t like about how he wanted to drop off a few empties after the show.

At this point, renewed slashing — no, make that beheadings — get underway, which isn’t to say that Crawford doesn’t give a real performance here. Positioned between What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and her aborted casting in Robert Aldrich’s follow-up Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte, Castle’s picture was a still early entry in the lamentable but memorable genre that cast onetime movie queens as hags amid ghoulery (even the still-attractive Olivia de Havilland suffered through this) back when cougars were just something that killed livestock. But Crawford gives it her all with a genuine performance, and given the cheesiness that surrounds her (even when seen in split-seconds, the severed heads are obvious prosthetics), this is this is no puny feat.

That we get even blusteringly quick shots of those heads is of note itself — another thumbed-nose to the dying Production Code and a harbinger of Charlotte’s own opening-scene dismemberment later the same year. This would have been a most unusual conceit for audiences to have experienced in 1964, though it ironically hit me during this viewing — as it also does here to laugh-a-minute bonus commentators Steve Haberman and David J. Show — that Leif Erickson and Rochelle Hudson (as the brother and his wife) are still sleeping in twin beds at a time when skulls are flying. Of course, this is already a movie off-center enough to have cast a fellow Pepsi board member (Mitchell Cox) in his only screen appearance as Crawford’s doctor — a one-scene wonder whose character is not without narrative importance, given its limited context. The poor guy’s giving it his earnest all, and in the end isn’t any more wooden than boyfriend Hayes (and, in fact, is probably less so). Fortunately, the two roles that demand real performance get them from Crawford and Baker, which helps. Some.

Though I like a satisfactory amount of grain in my Blu-rays, there are a few scenes here where the visual amp is turned up to “11” at least in terms of my taste — a situation that, admittedly, is often a matter of taste. But the supplements are fun even beyond the backgrounding voiceover, which is just what you want with Castle’s kind of exploitation fare: jokey and knowledgeable. So in addition, we get screen tests and a fun “making-of” documentary carried over from a long-ago DVD but also a pair of juicy new featurettes. One is an interview with Anne Helm — turning 80 in September and once the kind of hottie you’d expect to see in Elvis picture (and she was, as the femme lead in Follow That Dream). Crawford had her replaced with Baker (a former acting associate) after shooting began with continued casting murkiness that began with Crawford’s own hiring after Joan Blondell was set for the part.

The other interview is with onetime Columbia Pictures publicist Richard Kahn, who accompanied Crawford on her enthusiastically undertaken press tour (she had a big piece of the action) that even found her interrupting New York theatrical screenings to stand at an on-stage mic and say hello to the paying slobs. I can just see Billy Wilder OKing that, though it does point out the actress’s willingness to work her behind off to promote her pictures as a component of all-around professionalism, no matter what else one might choose to say about Crawford (and there’s plenty).

In a most unusual confluence of home entertainment events, bargain distributor Mill Creek will soon (Sep 25) be releasing a Blu-ray double bill of Strait-Jacket and Crawford’s penultimate feature Berserk. The latter was still another in a litany of circus-murder melodramas along with Ring of FearThe Big CircusCircus of Horrors and so on — though its teaming of Crawford and Ty Hardin cannot be denied (good Lord, Scorsese’s “unholy wife” Diana Dors is in it, too). It’s true that whenever a Mill Creek release manages to look really good, the original material was likely already in excellent shape, so we don’t know if the coming rendering will look the same or at least comparable. But programmatically, I do have to say that this imminent pairing pretty well guarantees an evening of ticklish trash.

On, this note, I always thought that Sony, which controls the Columbia Pictures library, missed a bet somewhere along the line by not releasing its seven Crawford features in a box — from Harriet Craig (which I love) through the actress’s big-screen swan song (hint: its one-word title, short for “troglodyte,” has four letters), a hall of fame camp-fest that nearly everyone agrees was the low point of her career. I suspect such a collection might have been a big seller with gay audiences and more; when I programmed the AFI theater, I did hordes of turn-away business on consecutive nights with a double bill of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest with Crawford’s Columbia Queen Bee. This fantasy collection wouldn’t have Davis, but it would have had (let’s just say it) Trog. There was even a promotional photo of these co-stars without chemistry having a Pepsi on the set. Call it the pause that refreshes — for about a million years.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Irma La Douce’ and ‘Strait-Jacket’