Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Sadist (1963) & The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

Right now the New Beverly Theater is running a series of films programmed by director Joe Dante, following on the success of their past series from Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. Here's a really good piece on the series.

Tonight I made it over for two rarities. The Sadist is an exercise in making the most on a super-low budget, a real-time thriller set entirely in and around a junkyard somewhere in remote southern California, where a trio of mild-mannered teachers find themselves after their car breaks down on the way to a Dodgers game. After marking time for a few minutes with some efficient, if clumsy, character development, we meet the villain of the piece, Arch Hall Jr. (that's him up top) as Charlie Tibbs, a raving lunatic version of Charles Starkweather, complete with a virtually-mute underage girlfriend. Unlike the sensitive drifter played by Martin Sheen in Badlands, this Charlie is a much less sympathetic character played by a much worse actor, with Hall mugging and screaming his way through the performance. But since this movie isn't trying to be thoughtful or rich in character insight, Hall's awful performance is ultimately a net positive, injecting crazy energy into the film and holding our attention. The movie's five characters plot and counterplot against each other, resulting in a surprisingly strong level of suspense and intrigue, well-shot in black and white by the young Vilmos Zsigmond.

In contrast to The Sadist's zero-budget discipline, Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is a sprawling low-budget mess, a sort of third-hand Oliver Stone movie covering Hoover's life from a young, somewhat idealistic G-man in the Coolidge administration to the paranoid monster of the Nixon years, with episodes dealing with Hoover's rise to power, his jealous treatment of popular F.B.I. agents like Melvin Purvis, the illegal wiretaps authorized by Franklin Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy, and the steps Hoover took that led, in the movie's view, to the F.B.I. toppling the Nixon administration in Watergate.

Only a few of Larry Cohen's movies are as successfully executed as they were conceived, and this is no exception, with a rambling story structure and utterly cruddy cinematography and production design, but the movie has a low-rent, New Hollywood charm, reveling in the freedom of the 1970s to say things that other movies couldn't or wouldn't. At it's best, the movie is just plain strange: A lonely Hoover (Broderick Crawford, in one of his last roles) warns a Stork Club waiter to keep his daughter out of a high school Communist front club, because he doesn't want his favorite waiter to get in trouble; a distracted Bobby Kennedy (Michael Parks) calls Hoover on the phone 'just to see if he's there' and then gets his beagle to bark into the phone, for no reason; and constant jokes made by others about Hoover's alleged sexuality, which is never resolved by the movie. In the end, as with Oliver Stone's Nixon, Hoover is painted as a man of great intelligence and skill who got carried away by the lure of power and the fear of letting go of it, and the movie works as a broad, if sloppy, portrait of a fascinating American, warts and all.

The Sadist: 6/10
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover: 6/10

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