David F. Walker
Category: BadAzz MoFo

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – WHITE DOG

If there was ever a film I thought would never see the light of day on home video, it would have to be director Sam Fuller’s White Dog. Regarded by many as one of the most controversial films of all time—unwarranted hyperbolic exaggeration if there ever was any—White Dog languished, practically unreleased since its production in 1982. Since that time it had a relatively insignificant theatrical release overseas, while never enjoying a legitimate home video release in the United States until 2008, when it was released as part of the Criterion Collection. For more than two decades it had become something of an urban myth, creating around it a sense of cinematic taboo usually reserved for films like Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust or Michael and Roberta Findlay’s Snuff.

Kristy McNichol co-stars as Julie Sawyer, a struggling actress who accidentally hits a white German shepherd with her car. Rather than leaving the dog to die on the side of the road, Julie takes him to a veterinarian, who gives the dog a clean bill of health and sends him home with the actress. Julie posts signs all over, hoping it will help her locate the dog’s owner, but the more time she spends with the dog, the more attached she becomes. By the time a rapist breaks into her apartment and the dog saves her life, it’s pretty much a given that he is there to stay. But when the dog viciously attacks Julie’s actress friend (Lynne Moody), who happens to be black, she suspects that there may be something wrong with the animal. Unbeknownst to her is that the dog has already attacked (and killed) a black person. Roland (Jameson Parker), Julie’s boyfriend, convinces her that the dog must be some sort of attack animal, and therefore dangerous. But rather than send the dog to the pound, Julie decides to try and have him retrained, so he won’t have the killer instinct.

Julie believes that there’s nothing wrong with the dog that can’t be fixed, and takes him to trainer Carruthers (Burl Ives), who warns her that an attack dog is a four-legged time bomb waiting to explode. But when the dog viciously attacks fellow trainer Joe (Bob Minor), who happens to be black, Caruthers realizes there is more to this dog than meets the eyes. This dog is a white dog—a dog trained by a white person to attack and kill black people. Enter Carruthers’ business partner, Keys (Paul Winfield), a super badass animal trainer who wrestles lions like it ain’t no thing. Keys becomes obsessed with the white dog, and is determined to break it of its racism, diligently training it to see past its deadly hatred for people with black skin. But when the dog manages to escape from its cage, and kills another black person, it is up in the air if he can be rehabilitated. With the guilt of the death hanging over him, Keys becomes even more determined to cure the dog.

At the time of its release, because of the nature of the film, White Dog was mistaken by some for being a pro-racism story, and as a result people reacted to the film as if it were preaching hate. The very notion that White Dog is a racist film is, however, completely ridiculous, especially given Fuller’s earlier films like Shock Corridor and Crimson Kimono, which aggressively attacked racist thinking. White Dog is as much of a condemnation of racism as anything else Fuller has done, but it suffered from being misunderstood during its initial release, and as a result languished in obscurity.

An accomplished journalist and outspoken director whose films often sparked controversy and debate, Fuller was never afraid to push the envelope with his movies. Already an established writer, Fuller’s directorial debut with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James established him as a talented force to reckoned with, a reputation that continued through to 1964’s The Naked Kiss. Fuller’s direction became more sporadic and less frequent between the mid 1960s through the 1970s, with 1980’s The Big Red One marking an artistic return to form. Fuller followed up with White Dog, based on a nonfiction book by Romain Gary.

As originally envisioned by Paramount, White Dog was to be little more than an exploitation horror film—a sort of canine version of Jaws. Fuller was brought on to the film after several other directors had already been attached, most notably, Roman Polanski. Under the direction of Fuller, however, with a script co-written by Curtis Hanson, White Dog evolved into something more than a cheap exploitation film. True to the style of his past work, Fuller used the film as a vehicle to explore subject matter other filmmakers were often afraid to approach, in a way that was as hard hitting as it was unflinching. In doing so, Fuller created a film that was a bold examination of racism, and the brutality that it manifests.

White Dog is not Fuller’s best work, and it is uneven at times. Jameson Parker as Julie’s boyfriend disappears at one point in the movie, never to return, and even Julie goes from being a central character to a throwaway supporting personality that has little to offer the second and third acts of the film. The central flaw of the film’s shifting main characters is not as problematic as it could be in any other movie, simply because Paul Winfield’s animal trainer is far more compelling than McNichol’s struggling actress. Winfield is cast as a strange mix of mad scientist and Captain Ahab, out to destroy a terrible monster. But what makes the character interesting, is that Keys views the dog as more of a victim, with the racist training that turned it into a killer as the monster. Although handled at times with ham-fisted dialog and direction, this train of thought is what makes White Dog brilliant. Under the subversive guidance of Fuller, the movie becomes less about a dog trained to kill black people, and instead becomes an exploration of the societal ill of racism; which is a disease that infects everything, even something as innocent as a dog.

There are other problems that surface throughout White Dog, including a script that at times is just plain silly and overwrought. And Fuller’s direction at times makes it difficult to tell exactly what he’s going for. There are sequences that have the feel of the sort of horror thriller Paramount originally wanted, and these scenes throw a bit of a wrench into the rest of Fuller’s artistic vision. And while all of the problems to be found in White Dog are enough to diminish any other film, they can’t hold back Fuller or keep the film from being a great bit of cinema. With the exception of maybe Larry Cohen, there is probably no other director other than Sam Fuller with the balls, talent or ability to infuse profound social commentary where you least expect it, making this film work in the way that it works. Had the movie been made six or seven years earlier, during the blaxploitation era, it would have fit in perfectly with the seemingly radical race politics that was found in many films. But coming in the 1980s, when Hollywood had retreated back into a more conservative approach to dealing with race, it was pretty much doomed.

Despite its noticeable flaws, White Dog is a solid film that serves as a great showcase for a director who was not afraid to take chances. Fuller was 70 years-old when he made White Dog, and could hardly be considered in his prime. Yet he still made a film better and more provocative than most filmmakers before or since could have gotten away with. And for that reason alone, White Dog is worth watching and studying.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – THE GREAT SILENCE

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant stepped into the title role of what is considered by some to be the greatest spaghetti western of all time, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (a.k.a The Grand Silence). Trintignant stars as Silence, your typical spaghetti western avenger, only this time with a twist—his vocal chords have been cut out (hence the name Silence—get it?).

The action takes place in and around a bleak, snow covered mountain town that happens to be the hunting ground for a gang of sinister bounty hunters lead by Tigero—or Loco, depending on which version you see—played to psychotic perfection by Klaus “I had sex with my mother” Kinski. These “officers of the law” prey on the outlaws that live in the surrounding region, setting up a clear role reversal that totally subverts the tradition western archetypes of good guys and bad guys. Silence joins sides with the outlaws to protect them from the merciless bounty hunters. But since the outlaws are technically the criminals, and the murderous bounty hunters are technically the law, there seems to be little hope in this brutal deconstruction of traditional storytelling conventions.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence.

The Great Silence is one of only a select few spaghetti westerns that I have watched multiple times, obsessively studying and analyzing it. Over the years, I have begun to see that this is in fact the best film directed by a man responsible for some of the greatest movies in the spaghetti western genre. Django and Compañeros are certainly classics in their own right, but The Great Silence surpasses those films on many levels, just as it surpasses pretty much every film within the genre—except for maybe Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That said, the film is not an easy pill for some people to swallow. The first time I watched The Great Silence it left me a feeling somewhere between depressed-as-hell, and sick-to-my-stomach. Corbucci pulls no punches with this one, and he delivers those punches full-force with his cynical view of the world.

The Great Silence does much more than turn the genre on its head, replacing the typical dusty, desert locations of so many other spaghettis with a snow-covered wasteland, or literally silencing his hero (who represents the oppressed masses with no voice or power). No, The Great Silence is a decimation of all the sacred conventions of traditional westerns, and Eurocentric folklore with its notions of good and evil, seemingly inspired by the likes of Arthur Penn’s convention-defying Bonnie and Clyde. And even then, there is more to the film. This is, more than anything, an attack on a society that is so corrupt that the keepers of law and order are the villains. Corbucci’s Marxist-esque message is quite simple: the law serves only to protect the rich and powerful—the bourgeois class of morally corrupt elitist. If you are part of the Proletariat—the poor and disenfranchised—justice and equality are beyond your grasp; and you are likely to become a victim of the system designed to “protect and serve.” This message results in one of the most depressing and politically profound endings in film history.

SPOILER ALERT: The Great Silence ends on an incredibly grim note as the “good guys” gun down the hero, killing off any true sense of hope for the notion of justice.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – NAVAJO JOE

Sergio Leone is the director most closely associated with the European-produced westerns popularly referred to as “spaghetti westerns.” Leone’s classics Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—are arguably the most popular and well known spaghetti westerns, and helped establish the director as the genre’s preeminent filmmaker. And while Leone is popularly thought of as the director who gave life to the spaghetti western, it would be the other Sergio—director Sergio Corbucci—that gave the genre its soul.

There was somewhere close to 600 spaghetti westerns produced in the 1960s and 1970s; but despite that incredible number, only a select few are worth remembering, let alone any good. Of the westerns produced some of the best the genre has to offer were directed by Corbucci. Among his best work you will find such classics as Django, Companeros, The Great Silence and The Hellbenders, all of which went a long way to helping spaghetti westerns create their own unique, stylish vision. One of his earlier westerns was 1966’s Navajo Joe, a film not among Corbucci’s best, but still better than many of the other genre entries.

Burt Reynolds stars as Joe, a Navajo warrior out for revenge when a gang of sadistic outlaws slaughters his woman and tribe. The gang, led by the ridiculously nefarious Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), a half-breed with hatred for the entire human race coursing through his veins, has been butchering Indians for their scalps, which are then sold for a dollar each. This, of course, leads Duncan and his men to the bad side of Joe, who begins systematically hunting the evil bastards. When Duncan and his men make plans to rob a train headed for the peace-loving town of Esperanza, Joe manages to thwart their plan. From there, Joe convinces the townspeople to pay him a bounty of Duncan and his gang—one dollar from each person in town, for every outlaw Joe scalps—which leads to an inevitable massacre of not-so epic proportions.

Sergio Leone had struck gold when he recruited American television star Clint Eastwood to star in his film A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood was the star of Rawhide, and was looking to make a transition to film. Because of the tremendous success of Leone and Eastwood’s pairing, other Italian filmmakers tried to recapture the magic with films like Navajo Joe. At the time, Reynolds was a television actor, best known for his recurring role on the popular series Gunsmoke, and trying to recreate the miracle of Eastwood must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Reynolds was working with a director who had yet to find his vision, in a movie that was destined to be mediocre at best.

The key to truly appreciating and understanding Navajo Joe is appreciating and understanding the spaghetti western genre. By and large, these were films that were put together very quickly, with little regard for quality or story. The best of the genre are the ones with compelling stories, told with distinct visual style, in a manner that makes sense to people outside the working class audiences of southern Italy. These films are few and far between. After the truly good films, there comes the films that are just plain okay—at least within the context of other spaghetti westerns. That is to say that these are the films that are nearly as bad as the vast majority of genre entries, but they certainly don’t stand up to much discerning scrutiny outside of the genre. Navajo Joe is one of these films. It is a better-than-average spaghetti western, but it certainly is not one of Corbucci’s better films, nor is it really all that good (unless you’re comparing it to something ridiculously bad like Django Kills Silently).

The problems with Navajo Joe are plenty, and typical of the genre. First and foremost is a script that is just plain bad. There’s no getting around it, or making excuses for it—the script is simply bad. But making matters worse is Reynolds’ performance, which registers almost no charisma whatsoever. Reynolds looks like the last thing he wants to do is be starring in some Italian-produced film being shot in Spain, in which he stars as murderous Indian. And that lack of enthusiasm shows during the thankfully few times he opens his mouth to deliver the already banal and lackluster dialog.

Where Navajo Joe succeeds is in the visual flair of Corbucci’s direction. Again, this is far from his best film, but he is clearly laying the groundwork and developing the style that would make films like Django (made the same year as Navajo Joe) and Companeros among the very best of the genre. Cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti also shot Corbucci’s The Great Silence, and it is easy to see the chemistry between the two during the scenes that actually work. You can also see early signs of some of the recurring themes that pop up in his films, including nontraditional protagonists—in addition to Joe, the film’s other “heroes” include an aging musician and his show girl companions. Corbucci is also fond of torturing his heroes, often to the point of near death, only to resurrect them in time to vanquish evil (the notable exception being the seminal filmThe Great Silence, one of the most bleak movies of all time). Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for close to 40 spaghetti westerns, including all of Leone’s and several of Corbucci’s better films, provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks with Navajo Joe.

Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Navajo Joe is a movie that will appeal to true fans of the spaghetti western, But anyone looking for a film that can be considered “good” in the more traditional sense of the word, will most likely be disappointed by this uneven film, You’ll be better off watching Corbucci’s Companeros, The Great Silence or Django, all of which are infinitely better films.

Get this review and dozens more in my electronic book, BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Film Review Archive – THE 36th CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN

If you are a true fan of martial arts flicks, then you no-doubt have seen this film in at least one of its several incarnations, which includes the alternate titles Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer. If, however, for some strange reason you have never seen this movie, then you can’t, in any way, shape or form, consider yourself to be a true die-hard fan of kung fu films. As harsh as that may sound, the reality is that for every genre and sub-genre of film you can imagine, there are only a very small handful of films that are essential viewing within that particular group. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of those films.

With the popularity of Bruce Lee and films like Five Fingers of Death (a.k.a. King Boxer) in the early 1970s, there was a flood of chop sockey cinema that was dumped in inner-city and Chinatown movies theaters all the way into the 80s. Produced by the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was one of these countless films. It had been a huge hit in Hong Kong, before it was edited, dubbed and released in the United States under the title Master Killer. At the same time films like Master Killer were being played in double and triple and quadruple features at rundown theaters and drive-ins, local television stations were still airing feature films during the day on Saturdays. Many stations, including Channel 5 in New York, and Channel 12 in Portland, where I moved when I was in junior high, began showing kung fu films, including Master Killer.

Like so many others who had become fascinated with kung fu films in the 1970s, I watched Master Killer simply because it appeared, at least as first glance, to be more of the silly, asskicking entertainment that made up many of my Saturday afternoons. But the reality is that the film was very different from all the others I had seen, and was really the only one to make any sort of lasting impression. Years later, when I went back and started rewatching martial arts films, this was the film I wanted to see again. When I finally saw it as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, probably a decade or more later, it was totally familiar, while at the same time a completely new experience.

The plot of 36th Chamber comes from the standard template of Hong Kong’s cinema of vengeance. Gordon Liu stars as San Te (although his name at the beginning is Liu Yu-te), an unassuming student who witnesses the brutality of the Manchus as nefarious General Tien (Lo Lieh) kills a rival. This prompts Liu to become involved in the rebellion to overthrow, but the cost of his involvement is the massacre of his family. With nowhere else to go, Liu flees to the Shaolin Temple, hoping that the monks there will teach him the kung fu skills he needs to avenge his family. At the temple Liu is renamed San Te by the monks, and he eventually begins the difficult training that involves mastering all 35 chambers used to teach the Shaolin kung fu.

A standard element in many martial arts films was the obligatory “training” sequence where a student of questionable skills eventually learns to become a master. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin took this standard convention, and turned it into the foundation of the film’s second act. Where a training sequence may have lasted somewhere around 10 minutes in another film, 36th Chamber uses the concept and turns it into a way of charting the growth of San Te’s character. In scene after scene of some of the most memorable moments to grace Hong Kong cinema, San Te masters one chamber after another, quickly moving toward his goal of becoming a fighter who can take revenge for his family. But as he masters each skill involved with the individual chambers, San Te begins to grow as a person, profoundly influenced by the Buddhist teachings of the Shaolin monks. When he finally has moved through all the chambers, and passed his final test, San Te is given the opportunity to oversee the instruction at any of the 35 chambers. Instead, he asks to create a 36th chamber, one that can be used to teach kung fu outside the temple to everyday people, so that they may protect themselves from the tyrants who rule the land.

What is profound about The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is that while it follows many of the conventions established in other martial arts films, it moves beyond those standard trappings. In countless other movies San Te would have simply learned to fight and gotten his revenge. But director Liu Chia-Liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-Leung) takes the genre to another level by developing San Te’s consciousness along with his fighting skills. This is evidenced by the protagonist’s journey from wanting to merely exact vengeance for the death of his family to his desire to teach others, so that they may protect themselves and fight against oppression.

The most popular heroes of martial arts films were always the flawed and the oppressed that grew into greatness through much trial and tribulation, despite their weakness. But at the same time, it was always difficult to find much depth or dimension within a majority of the martial arts heroes of Hong Kong films, especially as they played in the U.S., heavily edited and poorly dubbed. In making the journey to America, many films lost whatever heart and soul they may have had—if they had any in the first place. But no editing or poor dubbing was able to remove the heart and soul from 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and even as Master Killer, it emerged as a classic with the genre.