B Cool


Left: Giuliano Montaldo, Machine Gun McCain, 1969, color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. Production still. Right: Jonathan Kaplan, White Line Fever, 1975, color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Production still. Carrol Jo Hummer (Jan-Michael Vincent).

WITH THE ONGOING blockbuster season continuing to crowd out healthy B movies at the box office, the sequel to last year’s successful “William Lustig Presents” series at Anthology Film Archives provides desperately needed alternatives. Former exploitation filmmaker and current head of cult DVD label Blue Underground, Lustig once again revives forgotten genre treasures, largely made in the 1970s, a decade in which tough, action-oriented flicks were often economical and ingenious rather than bloated and uninspired. (For a quick compare-and-contrast, see Sylvester Stallone’s steroid-era The Expendables, also out this week.) A few selections reinforce the pre–video era B’s reputation as unknowing camp (Charles B. Pierce’s The Town That Dreaded Sunset [1977], which awkwardly combines true-crime serial killing reenactments with Southern hee-haw slapstick), but others shed light on the era’s no-nonsense visual punch and oft-overlooked moral righteousness. In famed and recently deceased cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s Dark of the Sun (1968), for instance, a torn Rod Taylor stars as a mercenary who develops a conscience amid the bloody chaos of the Congo civil war in the early 1960s. The violence is shocking but the tone remains titillation-free, right up to the protagonist’s devastatingly costly redemption.

Likewise, White Line Fever (1975) and Defiance (1980) cast affable Airwolf star Jan-Michael Vincent as a working-class hero, violently unionizing against the corrupt Southwest trucking industry in the former and standing up to a merciless Lower East Side gang in the latter. Local detail and life experience mean everything to these films: Fever’s post-Vietnam dream of settling down and raising a family pumps blood into Vincent’s blacktop-shredding, shotgun-wielding outrage, while Defiance deflates the romanticized myth of the early Koch years’ pre-gentrified “realness” by unblinkingly documenting a diverse community’s helplessness amid deteriorating streets and unchecked crime—before, of course, rallying behind disciplined sailor Vincent and local social club leader Danny Aiello.

Defiance was directed by the sadly unsung John Flynn, responsible for two major highlights of last year’s Lustig series, Rolling Thunder (1977) and The Outfit (1973). This year, Giuliano Montaldo’s brilliant spaghetti gangster film Machine Gun McCain (1969) acts as a brother of sorts to The Outfit: Both feature a macho, bullshit-averse professional criminal battling the Mafia almost single-handedly for revenge and profit. In McCain, the titular automatic-weapon specialist is played by none other than John Cassevetes, who brings along members of his own stock company, with Peter Falk as an ambitious mobster who goes over the head of his boss and Gena Rowlands as McCain’s hard-bitten ex-partner and wife. The rueful third-act reunion between Rowlands and Cassavetes isn’t as affecting as his interaction with screen son Pierluigi AprÓ, an up-and-coming con who springs his legendary dad from jail to carry out the traitorous theft of a Vegas casino. Looking down in disgust on his son’s two-bit operation—“Small time—no dignity!”—Cassavetes enacts an Oedipal rejection that isn’t so much “badass” as reptilian in its pragmatism and ferocity.

For whatever reason—curatorial purposefulness or generic coincidence—several of Lustig’s picks focus on filial anxiety. Released the same year as McCain and also produced in Italy with an Ennio Morricone score (all mouth harp and twang guitar), The Sicilian Clan pits a retiring crime-family paterfamilias, played by Jean Gabin, against Alain Delon, as the cocky murderer he helps escape from prison. Temporarily and reluctantly adopted into the three-son clan, Delon double-crosses not out of greed but lust, seducing Gabin’s daughter-in-law (Irina Demick) after bludgeoning an eel on a rock in a subtle display of sexual frustration. Though the film’s daring jewel-heist centerpiece is now overdetermined (hijacked planes are flown onto a New York City highway), the dynamic between legends Gabin and Delon—and Lino Ventura as a stressed detective unsuccessfully weaning himself off cigarettes—remains tersely captivating.

Though the least taut, the most fascinating film of the series might be The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), pulp maestro Larry Cohen’s biopic-as-exposÚ of the FBI mastermind and Fourth Amendment adversary. Revelations about the personal life of Hoover—portrayed by Broderick Crawford as a prudish, mother-clinging closet case—are now well-known lore, but Cohen draws convincing connections between Hoover’s sexual repression and political obtrusiveness, between private denial and public paranoia. The film makes a case for the ’70s B as both psychological and social muckraker: Shot in Hoover’s real DC stomping grounds with production values that lower any realism to movie-of-the-week quality, Files still bristles with a late-counterculture antiauthoritarianism that trumps most of its Hollywood contemporaries’ attempts (All the President’s Men), and then some.

Michael Joshua Rowin

William Lustig Presents” runs August 12–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.