Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The B-Movie Time Machine

A few nights ago I watched a B-movie adaptation of Richard Stark's "The Seventh," called "The Split," starring Jim Brown, and released in 1968.

Not a great movie, though it has its moments. (It also has a phenomenal cast: Ernest Borgnine in his pre-Wild Bunch "muscular" phase; Warren Oates; Jack Klugman -- Quincy! -- as a ruthless getaway car driver; pre-Bonnie & Clyde Gene Hackman; James Whitmore; Julie Harris; and the lovely, hopelessly-miscast Diahann Carroll.) The central heist is well-imagined (it should be; it was taken directly from Stark's book) and reasonably well-staged, and there are a couple of nice character beats with Warren Oates and Klugman, but overall, the movie is something of a mess. There are structural leaps and plot bumps that make no sense, and the director seems to be struggling to make the material mean more than it does. Tonal shifts arrive with breathtaking clumsiness, and there are logical leaps that defy rationalzation.

That said, it's a wonderful B-Movie Time Machine.

Anyone who's watched a Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Laurel and Hardy comedy shot on location in Los Angeles in the early 1900s is being given an opportunity to look over the shoulders of the film makers into the world as it was. Downtown Los Angeles was the silent comedian's back lot, and if you want to know what early 20th Century urban California was like, all you have to do is watch a Keaton two-reeler from 1921. ("The Goat" being a perfect example.)

Similarly, if you want a view of Los Angeles in the 1930s and 40s that reflects the city as it actually was, watch a Republic serial. Big studio productions shot their exteriors on the studio back lot, and while the serials also did some back lot shooting, most of their car chases and exterior action sequences take place in and around the San Fernando Valley. (If you'd like a great view of what the Valley looked like in the late 1940s, check out the flying sequences from "King of the Rocketmen" -- the Lydecker brothers who created those effects did so by stringing wires between two hills on Mulholland Drive, with the Valley in the background.)

In the late 40s and through the 50s, film noir took low budget productions to the streets of The City with Six Million Stories (New York) while Dragnet dragged us back to Los Angeles. All of these movies provided us with an unwitting documentary view of mid-century America in the background of sometimes otherwise undistinguished stories.

Which brings us to "The Split."

Anyone familiar with Los Angeles as it is today will experience several minor (and one major) shock watching this movie. The 405 Freeway at Mulholland Drive features prominently in one car chase, and it's stunning to see the empty hills and half-deserted highway of 1968 (today this intersection is the site of a massive construction project, the freeway is constantly packed with cars, and the hills are crowded with homes, schools, and an expansive museum, the Skirbal Center). LAX is visited; so is Pacific Coast Highway; so is downtown Los Angeles. All are familiar and yet weirdly different -- LAX is surrounded by, well, nothing; Pacific Coast Highway is a slum; and downtown Los Angeles is several decades from the wonders of gentrification.

The real shocker, though, is the centerpiece of the film -- the heist at the Collesium.

The Collesium, of course, is physically unchanged, but culturally its place in Los Angeles' daily life is astonishingly different now from what it was in 1968.

In 1968, the Collesium was an NFL stadium, home to a professional football team.

There is something truly surreal about watching a movie involving Jim Brown as a professional thief executing a heist from a football stadium, and it's particularly surreal when the stadium in question hosts a team that no longer exists. (The Los Angeles Rams; there may be a Rams team somewhere in the world, I don't care, the L.A. Rams are no more.) The only thing that would've made it more perfectly meta would be if the Rams had been playing the Cleveland Browns.

It's a B-Movie Time Machine, and if it isn't worth watching as movie (though I think it is) it's certainly worth watching for its view of a world now lost to the smoggy past.

1 comment:

Jonathan Andrew Sheen said...

I've never been to LA, so this comment takes a hell of a nerve, but I think you'll find another terrific '70s Private-Eye time machine in Hickey and Boggs starring I Spy's Robert Culp (who also directed, his only feature helming job) and Bill Cosby.

It's a terrific "fin de siecle" noir private eye flick, the sunset of the hardboiled Hollywood sleuth, but it also has one of the best jokes about 1970s LA life I've ever seen.

Early on in the movie, Boggs (Culp) visits a source of information in a fancy Hollywood mansion, with a gate with ornate brass lions flanking the walk. He's led through the house, and onto a back patio, where his host is reclining on a chaise lounge, perhaps six feet from where the ornate tile patio ends in a jagged line, dropping away to the sea. The source is squatting in a house abandoned because it's on a decaying cliffside.

Later, Cosby's "Hickey" has to go back and talk to the same source. He checks out with Boggs, and leaves, and we follow Boggs through another scene, then cut to a shot of Hickey, by the ornate brass lions, laughing and shaking his head. Behind him is a bulldozer, cleaning up not too much debris, and behind that, a jagged line of collapsed cliff: The cliff has marched inward, and the mansion has fallen into the sea.