Lustig for Life: Dipping into Grimy Genre Greats from the Warner Archive
For the fourth year running, sweatpanted sage William Lustig—Bronx-born director of 1980's Maniac and helmsman of Blue Underground DVD—serves up a menu of choice genre comestibles at Anthology Film Archives.
This year's 16-film lineup is culled from the catalog of the innovative Warner Archive Collection. A custom made-to-order DVD concern, Warner Archives' small-batch service makes available cinema esoterica whose niche appeal wouldn't justify a wide release. This serves to liberate the likes of 1970's The Traveling Executioner—an uneven farce with Stacy Keach as an itinerant electric chairsman working the Southern circuit c. 1918 and looking quite the sly gopher—the sort of thing Bill Lustig lives for.
As ever, Lustig's wheelhouse is the mid-'60s through the '70s, a time when stage blood was the color of tomato sauce. (Students of curator-as-auteur will also spot such Lustigian themes as dummies falling from great heights and Rod Taylor.) The outlier of this batch is The Window, an excellent 1949 suspenser from RKO—despite the Warners imprimatur, the "Archive Collection" includes RKO and MGM titles. A sort of dry run for Rear Window, likewise based on a Cornell Woolrich story, The Window has 11-year-old Bobby Driscoll as a tall-tale-telling NYC kid who witnesses a murder from a fire escape and then has a devil of a time getting anyone to believe him. The film gains immeasurably from Lower East Side location shooting, while Hollywood Babylon readers can appreciate the irony of an opening that has Driscoll playing dead in a dilapidated tenement—forecasting the child actor's own 1968 demise in an Alphabet City flop after years of drug abuse.
Lustig has previously resurrected underappreciated directors like John Flynn and parkour actioner Henri Verneuil; this go-around nominates for reconsideration one Antonio Margheriti. Usually credited with the export-friendly moniker "Anthony Dawson," Margheriti is represented here with a three-film block including Wild, Wild Planet, War of the Planets, and The Snow Devils—all of which use much of the same casts, props, trussed jumpsuits, charming Tinkertoy space-age miniatures, philosophically pretentious villains, dramatically inert mise-en-scène, and moronic future slang ("You space idiot, you." "He's gone galaxy!") Better suited to fresh scrutiny is Jack Cardiff, the great English cinematographer-turned-director, seen teaming with Rod Taylor in both Bond spoof The Liquidator (1965) and The Mercenaries (1968), set during the '60s Congo Crisis, a film with a superb sense of the career adventurer's suicidal brio, whose feeling for life spent in proximity to death informs the razor's-edge set pieces.
Cardiff's films lead off a Murderers' Row lineup of U.K. pictures. Witchfinder General director Michael Reeves's audience-indicting second film, The Sorcerers (1967), stars an infirm Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey as a husband and wife who, at the end of long, thwarted lives, vicariously live out cheap, violent kicks in Swinging London through the avatar of hypnotized twentysomething guinea pig Ian Ogilvy.
Not less wild is Cornel Wilde's eco-meltdown, postapocalyptic No Blade of Grass—essential post-Hurricane Sandy viewing—which has Nigel Davenport captaining a group of survivors through a food-shortage riot, across a toxic Northern countryside festooned with dead wildlife, and through fuzz-tone-scored biker-gang rape-romps, all while dispassionately dispatching any of Her Majesty's soldiers or shotgun-toting farm wives who stand in his way. Narrative disarray reflects social breakdown, and the film is fragged with mad crosscutting, crimson-blotched flash-forwards, voiceover snippets, freeze-frame flip books, and even live-birth footage. And while fans of Brit sleaze have long championed the grimy pleasures of Mike Hodges's 1971's Get Carter, the Newcastle pubs, row houses, and nouveau riche manors as seen along Michael Caine's road to vengeance, George Armitage's Hit Man of the following year is a welcome discovery, transposing the same material—Ted Lewis's crime novel Jack's Return Home—to blaxploitation Los Angeles. This double bill proves that pulp is an international language—one that few know their way around like Bill Lustig.
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