Archive for the ‘James Caan’ Tag

Slither (1973): No Snakes on the Plains   Leave a comment

James Caan polishes his comedy chops in this meandering story about an ex-con who takes a field trip with a gang of oddballs.

Dick Kanipsia (Caan) and Harry (Richard Shull), two cons just released from prison, head to Harry’s house to drink a few beers, have a sandwich, and relax in front of the TV. As soon as they start to get comfortable in the ramshackle cottage, gunshots ring out. Neither of the men can tell who’s shooting or where the gunshots are coming from and let’s just say things go poorly for Harry.


Harry and Dick in happier times.

Soon, Dick’s on the road, hitchhiking. He gets picked up by nutty Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman), whose manic behavior belies an off-center brand of innate logic, and the two begin a quasi-romance. Dick wants to keep moving though because he has a destination in mind. You see, Harry dropped a name and hinted about a big payday, so when Kitty takes a little too much speed and pulls a gun at a truck stop, Dick takes off again in search of Harry’s fortune.


Their denim game is strong in this.

Dick contacts Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle), Harry’s old friend, and Dick, Barry, and Barry’s wife, Mary (Louise Lasser) hit the road in Barry’s Airstream camper.


“Mary who?”

Pulled by his shiny red Cadillac, the trio take off followed by an ominous black super van.


Got your copy of Catcher in the Rye?

I recently recorded a podcast (The Forgotten Filmz podcast) to discuss Slither and I stick by my theory that the mission to find the missing money is just a MacGuffin. The real point of this film is to let us meet and get to know these offbeat characters. It’s one of the reasons I love 70s films so much. In quite a few of them, the characters are the plot. Eccentric characters meet haphazardly, and because of their idiosyncrasies, they get into mischief. Their weirdness either extricates them from their problems or gets them in deeper. That’s a 70s film. By the time the film ends, you either love them, hate them or mourn them, but you’ve long since stopped caring about their quest.


“Course it’s a good idea!”

Another great thing about 70s films is the natural look of the actors. They’re not all shined up with perfect teeth and zero body fat. They look like regular people. They wear bellbottoms and jeans shirts and crappy poly blend sports shirts with white belts. They have average complexions and sticky-outy teeth. Slither has that in spades. It’s hard to shine up Allen Garfield and Alex Rocco, who, by the way, is billed as Man with Ice Cream. Man with Ice Cream! The year before, Rocco was Moe Greene, who was making his bones when you were going out with cheerleaders!


“I got a business to run. I gotta kick asses sometimes to make it run right.”

Slither is a weird, slice-of-life film with a road trip thrown in. Howard Zieff, who also directed The Main Event, House Calls, and Private Benjamin, keeps the structure loose even as he ramps up the tension. I mean, who are those guys in the scary black vans? The dialogue was natural, quick-witted, and perfect for Boyle and Caan, who have more comedic ability than they get credit for. The screenplay, an original by W.D. Richter, who also wrote the screenplay for Home for the Holidays and adapted Big Trouble in Little China for the screen, was a mix of road movie, crime film, and madcap adventure.


“Just one more thing.”

I have to admit, this film was completely off my radar before Todd Liebenow of the Forgotten Filmz podcast suggested it. I’m glad I saw it. I will say, Slither is a misleading title for a road movie. There’s not a single snake in this. I can only assume they called it Slither because of the labyrinthine plot. OK, I guess. I wonder if a gang of folks came to this film hoping to see Marjoe Gortner wrestle a boa and left scratching their heads.


Marjoe does not appear in this film.

Sidenote: There is a made-for-TV version of this film, directed by Daryl Duke ( The Silent Partner) starring Barry Bostwick and Patti Deutsch, made one year later. I have not seen this, but now I must.

Please listen to the Forgotten Filmz podcast  to hear the always gracious, Todd Liebenow and I discuss Slither. Find Todd @ForgottenFilmz and me, @echidnabot on Twitter.


Serpentine!

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Thief (1981)   4 comments

thief

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

 Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, (1624) by John Donne

Frank (James Caan) works alone.  He and his partner, Barry (James Belushi) case the joints, research the electronics, have the proper equipment made, and pick up the ice themselves.  They’re professional, sharp, and technically adept.  They’re also thieves. After each robbery, Frank assesses the worth of the stolen diamonds and negotiates with a fence for a percentage of the street value.  It’s a tidy operation.  Frank funnels his end into a car dealership, a bar, and other businesses.  Frank and Barry keep a low-key profile. Neither is flamboyant, violent, or prone to criminal outbursts.  It’s the ideal set-up for a guy who likes control.

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All these successful, high-end heists attract the attention of Leo (Robert Prosky), a crime boss with connections.  At first, Frank declines Leo’s offer to work for him.  Frank likes running the show.  Leo’s offer to provide Frank with organized jobs, equipment, and backing proves too tempting though and Frank throws in with the syndicate.  The avuncular Leo charms Frank, who lives a solitary life, but longs for something more.  Frank’s desire to have a family and join the human race allow him to make moves that will connect him to people.  For a man who understands the power that caring about nothing provides, these actions are risky.  When Leo’s true nature comes to light, Frank has to decide how to extricate himself from his problems.

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“Let’s do it to them before they do it to us.”  Oops, wrong show.

The underdog concept has always made entertaining films, but in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the lone man fighting the system became a genre.  Somewhere along the line, the establishment changed from comforting father figure to micromanaging bureaucrat and often the little guy got stomped on.  LONELY ARE THE BRAVE shows Kirk Douglas tilting at windmills he doesn’t understand just because he won’t live the way everyone else does.  In BULLITT, Steve McQueen solves crimes his way, even if he has to butt heads with crafty superiors like Robert Vaughn.  In the most obvious comparison, CHARLEY VARRICK stars Walter Matthau as “the last of the independents”.  He’s a crop duster and amateur bank robber who has to improvise to escape the wrath of the mob.  Again, like Gary Cooper’s Will Kane, Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, and James Caan’s Frank, Varrick has the odds against him and only his wits on his side.  THE CONVERSATION, THE DRIVER, SERPICO, and the futuristic ROLLERBALL pit loners against criminals, police, entrenched corruption, and even John Houseman’s corporation simply because they want to live life on their own terms.  Sean Connery even does his best lone wolf as a sheriff on one of Jupiter’s moons in OUTLAND, the HIGH NOON of space movies.

out1
Sean on Jupiter

Despite the fact that THIEF leans on often-used themes, its take on the independent man breaks ground with the main character.  Frank isn’t a cuddly guy, but he’s sharp and driven and a straight-shooter.  As odd as it sounds, he’s honest.  As an honest thief, he expects others to be square with him.  When they’re not, Frank’s anger is palpable.  He doesn’t lose control. Instead, he’s strong and menacing at times.  In one of the best parts of the film, Frank is underpaid for a job and demands the rest of his cut. “My money in 24 hours or you will wear your ass for a hat.”  James Caan revels in this role.

jam
“Quit calling me Sonny.”

Michael Mann directed, wrote the screenplay, and executive produced THIEF, his first theatrically released film.  The slick, stylized look later became a Mann trademark in the MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY series and in films like MANHUNTER and HEAT.  More than a simple action film, THIEF touches on larger themes of the connectedness of society and to what lengths a man will go to remain free.  THIEF looks great too.  Much of the film takes place at night, but director of photography Donald Thorin makes it work and the action and nearly wordless heist scenes are choreographed meticulously often with the music of Tangerine Dream adding texture.

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Not quite a nihilist, Frank believes in nothing but himself and his own abilities.  When he gets to that point, he knows no one can touch him.  He knows he’s free.

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This piece appeared originally in the Brattle Film Notes.  Here’s the link.  THIEF  The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts shows an odd assortment of classic, cult, independent, and foreign films in its cozy Harvard Square theatre.  If you’re ever in the Boston area, you owe it to yourself to drop in for a film.  It’s a lovely place.

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