The opening credits follow a truck along the highways, and around one bend it passes two horses, which don’t appear to move at all. It has been suggested that they are “cardboard props”, and if that were so a direct link to Fellini’s Toby Dammit would be established beyond the two great modalities of Needham’s film, which may be stated as the romance of the road and the stillness beside it.
Frank Tashlin in The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell organizes just such a beer run. The immediate inspiration is Live and Let Die’s Southern chase sequence. There’s a finely distant memory of Arthur Ripley’s Thunder Road, and the whole thing tends to prepare Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy. Sydney Pollack in The Electric Horseman paid adroit homage to the gagwork. Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night is among its noble forebears.
Needham’s original way of handling gag material can be seen in the football sequence. Bandit’s car, driven by Carrie (Sally Field), plows through the brush (POV) and into open air, where it is seen from a side angle in slow motion flying onto a football field with a game underway. After establishing its forward motion in real time, Needham returns to the POV for an important variation of the “oblivious bystanders at the last second” gag as the car careens through a wall (the gag is stated classically at the end of the film).
Needham is expert with a set-up. Cledus (Jerry Reed) is seen in the doorway of the roadhouse, there is a reverse shot of his pals at the bar, then back to Cledus looking askance as finally Needham pans with him across the room full of rowdy motorcyclists. Cledus is ejected bloodily, looks right from the doorstep with a smile and walks left to his truck. By and by, he drives right over the parked motorcycles.
The two modalities are resolved with a roadside tryst between Bandit (Burt Reynolds) and Carrie. The screenplay assigns profuse and nimble funniment to Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason), whose car is “whittled away” like Mr. Merriweather in Little Big Man, and his imbecilic sidekick Junior (Mike Henry), all dressed up for a wedding.
The bigwigs who initiate the run, Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos (Paul Williams) drive a red Cadillac convertible with a “MR. BIG” license plate at the rear adorned with horns. They wear matching baby-blue cowboy suits for the purpose, and rose-yellow ones at the payoff.
The poetical side of craftsmanship, or Salut l’Artiste of gags. This is a film for everybody who went to Knott’s Berry Farm way back when (or Universal Studios likewise) and saw the mock gunfights that went on all day long (Next Show 2:15), with stunt men flying and falling, blanks blazing, smoke filling the air, etc.
So here they are going from job to job, dealing with studio people and directors and injuries and death, or laying out a whole picture end to end with an Apocalyptic finish they have to circumnavigate, or some other godawful death-defying gag to design, deliver and do for the cameras. A very funny film.
The Villain elsewhere than the UK, where they speak a different language.
Cactus Jack Slade, evidently a cousin of Evil Roy Slade (dir. Jerry Paris), and Cactus Jack’s horse, who shits sitting down, the brains of the outfit, Whiskey.
He’s a wily coyote, Cactus Jack, out to murder Handsome Stranger and ravish Charming Jones and steal her father Parody’s money he’s been hired to steal for banker Avery Simpson.
Nervous Elk and Anxious Beaver observe and lend a tribal hand in Indian County.
“Lost in the dust,” said Variety’s reviewer, meaning he couldn’t see the horselaughs for the wheeze.
Time Out Film Guide has “abysmally unfunny”, and that’s plain enough in any language.
Halliwell’s Film Guide gives the original title, “lamentably misfires” is its assessment, and moreover supplements this with the Monthly Film Bulletin, “limp, laughless”.
Smokey and the Bandit II
Not a truckload of beer, but a “most cherharming” elephant. The final joust between the gearjammers and the smokeys is quite remarkable, in your and pachydermatous memory (homage to Peckinpah from the master of suspension).
The opening gag is a stunt man’s spree, in a tale of sponsored stock car racing derived from A Thousand Nights and a Night (“The Old Man of the Sea”).
The outset stems partly from James Goldstone’s Winning, certainly. That opening gag has a stock car driver (Burt Reynolds) speeding to the track on three wheels with his mechanic (Jim Nabors) hanging out the passenger door for balance. Stroker has youthful competition (Parker Stevenson), he seeks security in a promotional campaign for a line of fast-food restaurants called the “Chicken Pit”, the slogan of which is “fastest chicken in the South!” He has to wear a chicken outfit for ads. The owner of the contract is Clyde Torkle (Ned Beatty).
Stroker’s chum (John Byner), who had to abandon a singing career because his voice resembled Johnny Mathis too exactly, helps out with a plan to break the contract during a big race.
While all this is going on, Torkle’s assistant (Loni Anderson), a naïve blonde from Bashful Bend, makes the acquaintance of Stroker Ace. Needham films her so well, it may not have been observed how easily he handles the racing scenes with an improvement on the flawless technique of Smokey and the Bandit, even.
What’s more, the theme is further developed in another dimension as Rad. The ending floats all boats but Torkle’s (shills are a dime a dozen anyway), the barroom fight is one of the great ones, the film opens with a sepia-toned flashback to Stroker’s childhood (out of Thunder Road), the cinematography’s as cheerful as a motor speedway in summer, and the screenplay is faster than NASCAR.
Vincent Canby was capable of some stunning oversights, but Stroker Ace hit his blind spot very badly indeed. Roger Ebert turned up his nose, as he is wont to do, unjustifiably. And this is the only occasion one can think of when Spirituality and Health had no insight whatsoever, its review turned a blind third eye on the film, astonishingly.
Cannonball Run II
The prime virtue of this film is a certain amount of carelessness, so that the main thrust can manifest itself unconcernedly. Shel Silverstein’s joke USA map is employed via animation to briefly wrap up the run.
A major influence is Every Which Way But Loose. Philippe de Broca took inspiration for a great gag in Le Jardin des Plantes.
Needham consciously places this film in Mayberry, which as you know is partly in North Carolina and partly in Southern California. The diner is a notable ringer. The local kids deliver papers acrobatically on their BMX bikes, and have a fine time doing it.
Jack Weston arrives with millions to build a professional BMX venue called Helltrack. This is where Needham has his theme coldly stated: the cynosure of Cochrane needs corporate sponsorship to race, a pile of money, it’s the rules, etc.
Well, the kids silkscreen a batch of Rad Racing T-shirts, and get their champion in. After that, it’s all downhill and uphill around and around, with some fine slow-motion action sequences.
Needham films all of this very beautifully. The diminished tempo of the sport allows the great technique that went whizzing by in Smokey and the Bandit to expand in fertile views of the landscape. Connoisseurs admire it greatly but alas the New York Times reviewer couldn’t understand a word of it beyond the opening credits.
This great film, for which Rad is a major study, has been overlooked because its meaning is lost in its images. Smilac the promoter can’t get his band out of the garage, then acquires a wrestling tag team he thinks is a musical act. He books the entertainment at a political fundraiser for Norton Wilshire, but the crowd is repulsed by Kicks.
WILSHIRE SAYS AYATOLLAH DID IT, is the headline next day. A wrestling maven, Captain Lou Murano, sics the Cannibals on his tag team, who end up in the hospital. Murano hates Smilac and controls every wrestling venue, so the only recourse is to out-of-the-way places the band played early on.
At the San Bernardino Arena, an audience used to pig auctions and artificial insemination nights loves Kicks, and his wrestlers offer a $1000 challenge. Two locals nearly win it, until Smilac replaces the stadium organist (out of Slap Shot) with Kicks, and his team is victorious.
The money rolls in, they make the cover of Rolling Stone (as a subhead, article p. 76), Smilac goes on Ring Talk with Charles Nelson Reilly and Billy Barty (of the adverse party) to goad the Captain into a championship match. Chick Hearn calls the action, Wilshire joins the crowd, the band (renamed Kick) sees its instruments destroyed onstage by the Cannibals, but nothing can stop Smilac’s wrestlers, who end the film by holding up their championship belts.
Needham’s film (the broadcast version is Smitheed) premiered six months before Firstenberg’s The Alternate (Agent of Death), where a president is up for re-election. Here it’s a congressman about to run for governor.
The scene is Miami. The Les Plages Hotel is abandoned and graffitied but freshly façaded for the congressman’s speech, his campaign manager pays for a hostage crisis, a “political haymaker”. This goes badly, a bonus to the team leader gets him killed by his own No. 2, the campaign manager shortchanges at the payoff, the hook is set. Vietnam tunnel rats booby-trap the place, aides are tossed out windows or exploded.
Money puts a veneer on anything, the congressman knows he’ll be welcome, he’s bringing a check for fifty million to the city.
Logan McQueen the artist is off the force after a year in prison, falsely convicted. His partner, Charlie Duffy the connoisseur of graffiti art, is one of two initial demands made by the hostage-takers. The other is Larry King.
But first, McQueen and Duffy have to turn a buck by taking a skip-tracer assignment, an embezzler at a poolside party. Duffy bungles it, the target is hit and presumed dead. McQueen goes fishing, Duffy is summoned to the hotel.
Its appearance is divided by Needham between the defaced walls and the magnificent workmanship evident in many of the shots. Duffy is struck and presumed dead, McQueen and a junior police detective go in.
SWAT teams perish in the stairways and corridors, McQueen “was there” and reads the shorthand marks or Vietnamese inscriptions left by the rats as an aide-mémoire. The younger man who gets all the ladies is sidelined with a rear injury, Duffy is freed with the congressman’s wife, No. 2 holds a teenage girl, her stepdaughter. The rest of the team, a cretinous softie, is dead.
McQueen escapes Corporal Flynn’s self-immolation and shields the girl. The name of the campaign manager has come up. FBI agents and Miami police have him.
The complicated, abstruse nature of the plot is a perfect analysis advantageous to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissiou (Wes Anderson), which has its origin presumably in an underwater scene on a hotel lobby monitor in Fellini’s Ginger e Fred.
The embezzler is picked up at a doctor’s home by a rival bounty hunter (whose real name is assuredly Alan S.).