CineSlice

A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: August, 2012

“The Dunwich Horror” (1970)

 

The irony of adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s writings for film is that they’re by their very design unadaptable. No movie can match what our active imaginations can conjure, so the best we can hope for is something that hints at those realms of madness man dare not explore. The Dunwich Horror is on the right track, though. It’s an early example of Lovecraft on the big screen that insinuates an imminent, apocalyptic evil much better than those that preceded it. But the flick is still a frustratingly mixed bag, stepping forward with some mood-enhancing goodies before plot holes and hammy acting knock it a few steps back again.

The Necronomicon. Book of the dead, gateway to worlds beyond ours, everlasting pain in Bruce Campbell’s heinder. It’s also an object of morbid desire for one Wilbur Whateley (Dean Stockwell). Fixated on possessing the supposedly mystical tome, Wilbur nevertheless fails to weasel it away from its current owner, Dr. Armitage (Ed Begley). Undettered, our unabashedly skeezy friend instead lures Armitage’s assistant (Sandra Dee) to his old homestead in Dunwich, where the locals regard him with about as much affection as torch-wielding mobs have for Frankenstein. It seems that Wilbur comes from a long line of meddlers in the dark arts, and as he places his fetching captive under a deep spell, he schemes to nab the Necronomicon and deliver unto earth the most unfathomable evils ever spawned.

The Dunwich Horror was part of American International’s experiment to bring some Lovecraft stories to life the same way Roger Corman did with Edgar Allan Poe’s work. They’re all similar in style and loose in loyalty to their source material, but the Lovecraft pictures just had a harder time coming together well. The Haunted Palace was damned good (even if oddly sold as a Poe movie), Die, Monster, Die! had a big green rock that turned Boris Karloff into Destro, and perched just about in the middle is The Dunwich Horror. On the one hand, you can really sense a sinister shift in tone from earlier Lovecraft adaptations. Following the ominous (and just damned cool) opening credits sequence, you can tell that there’ll be no guy in a dumb monster costume around to tarnish the dread-inducing atmosphere.

But if The Dunwich Horror is dead sure about the vibe it wants to give off, it’s twice as clueless about how to keep it going for more than a scene or two at a time. A lot of this has to do with Stockwell as Wilbur — between Begley not being around much and Dee busy writhing about in her skivvies, this is the guy you’re best buddies with for the bulk of the picture. Stockwell’s performance isn’t ineffective or awful in any way; it’s just that he belongs in another movie, one in which he’s not required to seduce doe-eyed girls while feeling moments away from wringing his hands in every single scene. It’s just one nit in a simmering brew of inconsistencies that includes Sam Jaffe as Wilbur’s grandpa — who used to be in a cult but isn’t now, for whatever reason — and some thing locked in the Whateley estate that sure pounds on the door a lot for a creature that even the characters say doesn’t really exist in our world.

The Dunwich Horror has a few moments of choice, harpsichord-accompanied creepiness to its name. With its oppressive atmosphere and religious element, the film made a mature advance in the horror genre that The Exorcist and The Wicker Man would run with in a big way just a few years later. It’s no cheese log a la Lurking Fear, but with its pants-wetting visuals and its rib-tickling script, The Dunwich Horror is left looking like a monster all of its own.

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“The House of the Seven Gables” (1940)

 

Had Universal decided to make The House of the Seven Gables five years before it did, we might’ve had one of the most bitchin’ literary adaptations of its time. Though unread by me, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original novel is renowned for its dark subject matter, which would have made a hell of a match with the expressionistic manner in which the studio’s classics The Black Cat and The Raven were presented. However, the Gables that came about in 1940 opts for the romantic drama approach in lieu of filling the screen with doom and gloom aplenty. But you know what? It’s still a pretty good movie. While obviously not what it could’ve been, The House of the Seven Gables still sells its chosen angle like a champ, bolstered by a spiffy cast and a script that nicely brings the themes it does run with to the forefront.

For nearly two centuries, the Pyncheon clan has made its fortune off of the misery of others. Each new descendant adds something to a legacy of lies, crime, and corruption, but no more. Clifford Pyncheon (Vincent Price) dreams of Etch-a-Sketching his life and using the family name to do some good for once, starting with selling off his ancestral mansion. This doesn’t quite sit well with his brother Jaffrey (George Sanders), who remains convinced that the key to a veritable treasure lies somewhere within the joint. A few little white lies sends Clifford off to jail on bogus murder charges, although Jaffrey will come to regret that decision, for his brother comes to encounter a man all too willing to help make the Pyncheon bloodline pay for its misdeeds.

Though it’s based on a novel steeped in Gothic history and imagery, The House of the Seven Gables doesn’t exhibit such unnerving visuals very often, if at all. In fact, so little of the titular abode is actually seen, you wouldn’t be blamed for mistaking it for any average rundown shack on the block. But what it lacks in elaborate production design and faithfulness to its source material, The House of the Seven Gables compensates by telling a solid, effective story. Though the sanitized script differs dramatically from Hawthorne’s words, Clifford’s journey remains no walk in the park. He suffers a miscarriage of justice, his own brother’s betrayal, and the dissolution of a budding romance prior to plotting his revenge, which may or may not make him another victim of the Pyncheon brood’s tailor-made circle of violence.

In any case, The House of the Seven Gables should be on any vintage film buff’s radar just to see Vincent Price at such an early stage in his career. The notion of Price cast as the wronged hero in a period romance is strange alone, but it’s even more odd not to see a single shred of the mannerisms or campy acting style for which he’s been lampooned by every and their dog for decades. Price delivers a great, passionate performance as Clifford, so full of caring in his youth and so weary in his post-prison years. As Clifford’s tortured love interest, Margaret Lindsay mirrors his emotional breakdown, coming as equally chameleonlike in her role. Sanders is all slimy charm as the movie’s boo-hiss baddie (when you’ve got the voice of Shere Kahn, it sort of comes naturally), and Nan Grey (so memorably victimized by Gloria Holden in Dracula’s Daughter) is innocence personified as a distant Pyncheon relative who comes to brighten up the old place in her own way.

Accuracy is not on the agenda of The House of the Seven Gables, but I think we can cut it some slack. It’s a perfectly respectable picture that establishes the ideal mood for the story it wants to tell and assembles the on-/off-camera talent to make it click. Not only is The House of the Seven Gables a nice place to visit, you wouldn’t mind staying there after all.

“There’s No Business Like Show Business” (1954)

The 1950s are often referred to as the prime of Hollywood musicals, and I’m not about to argue with that. We saw An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and the juggernaut that is Singin’ in the Rain, all of which (among many others) married jaunty tunes with artistically diverse presentations. But that decade was also the genre’s swan song, falling more and more out of favor with the public, while those productions that were greenlit often favored hollow spectacle over real entertainment value. There’s No Business Like Show Business came out about halfway through the ’50s, so I wouldn’t say it was a nail in the musical’s coffin. But it sure was a sign of where movies like it were heading, as it puts more dough into looking great than effort into striking genuine emotional chords.

The year is 1919. Vaudeville rules the entertainment world, and the Donahues are happy to be along for the ride. Longtime song-and-dance couple Molly (Ethel Merman) and Terence (Dan Dailey) gradually expand their act to include their trio of children, emerging from the Depression and rise of motion pictures still at the top of their game. But as the kids approach adulthood, fate threatens to split up the family business. Eldest son Steve (Johnnie Ray) heeds the call of the church, middle daughter Katy (Mitzi Gaynor) discovers the opposite sex, and youngest squirt Tim (Donald O’Connor) falls for a hat check girl (Marilyn Monroe) with her sights set on being a star, as well. Though it’s hard for them to see their little ones all grown up, Molly and Terence must pull together and realize that no matter where everyone goes, they’ll always be family.

There’s No Business Like Show Business is what most people imagine when the word “musical” is dropped, and not in a good way. By and large, the film is a dumping ground for a random assortment of songs, few of which are tied into the main story in the slightest. That’s just fine — hey, Singin’ in the Rain was a “best-of” compilation for MGM’s song catalogue, and it’s a classic — but this flick isn’t nearly as adept at serving up its numbers with form or reason for being. The tunes are catchy, yeah, although a lot are tacked on as part of a performance and play no integral part in where the plot is going. If There’s No Business Like Show Business wanted to be a revue, it should’ve been a revue; there’s no sense in shoving in one routine after another for the first twenty minutes, while trying to blitz character development past us at the same time.

Only once in a while does one of the film’s numbers really touch you, and it’s more often than not due to the spiffy cast. It’s just too hard to dislike someone with enough energy to burn like Donald O’Connor, a versatile performer who puts a smile on your face when he’s hoofing it with living statues and earns your sympathy when things take a turn for the dramatic. In fact, all of the actors fare just fine (even Monroe makes the conceptually-silly “Heat Wave” sequence fly), belting out their respective songs with passion and owning every moment in the spotlight. It just bites that the threadbare script affords the Donahue gang so few chances to feel like a real family. They’re so saddled with enacting bombastic set pieces or melodramatic theatrics that the legacy summed up by the title tune in the finale doesn’t seem all that earned.

There’s No Business Like Show Business is about as no-frills as musicals get. If all you care for is the quality of the costumes or if the choreography sizzles, then your fun is all but guaranteed. But I’ve seen so many pictures of this kind that were more than just frivolous larks, so it’s a letdown to see There’s No Business Like Show Business pass on a chance at substance and lap up the glitz instead.

“The Phantom” (2009)

 

I’m tickled that filmmakers are still trying to get the Phantom to work. No, really, I’m serious — I grew up on retro action flicks like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer, so I’m pulling for this most classic of costumed adventurers to get a fair shake on the big screen. But right off the bat, I knew that 2009’s The Phantom was a step in the wrong direction, on two counts: for having debuted on that dubious den of cinema known as Syfy, and for setting itself in modern times. For what it’s worth, the specifics of transplanting a character used to a period jungle environment into the now are handled about as well as they could be. But The Phantom is still stuck with no identity of its own, nor a rousing sense of adventure elevating it beyond a standard-issue comic book origin story.

College student Chris Moore (Ryan Carnes) is heir to an ancient crimefighting legacy — he just doesn’t know it yet. But on the same night his folks are given the Owen/Beru treatment by some mysterious baddies, Chris learns the truth about his real past. Over the course of hundreds upon hundreds of years, his ancestors have used the mantle of a purple-clad, seemingly immortal avenger known as the Phantom to combat injustice all over the world. As the last in his line and with no family to turn to, Chris is left with no choice but to pick up where his pops left off and train as the new Phantom. But in this technology-driven day and age, evil too has upgraded, and it’s going to take more than a pair of pistols and his fists for Chris to stop some brainwashed killers from carrying out a political assassination.

The Phantom epitomizes just about everything that can go wrong when you try to make an old entertainment property hip for the kids. The new Phantom is adept at parkour, traipses around the Big Apple instead of the jungle, and, in a rather cavalier way, ditches the old purple spandex outfit. That’s bold talk for a movie that replaces said threads with a get-up that’s better suited for an extreme snowboarder. Yep, The Phantom makes fast work of breaking Superhero Commandment #1: if the duds don’t work, the movie doesn’t either. Cheesy as it was, even the 1996 Billy Zane flick had the flavor of an old-timey adventure, with engaging action set pieces and a great production design. But his 21st-century successor trades all that in for lifeless locales that feel all the more like a succession of half-hearted sets rather than part of a living, breathing world.

Sure, The Phantom retains some aspects of the original comics, a la the iconic skull insignia and how our hero never deliberately kills. But with all the modernization involved, including the Phantom being backed up by a sophisticated and very well-funded intelligence agency, you almost wonder why there even needs to be a Phantom at all. An eleventh-hour twist supplies an answer, but it’s a weak stab at giving weight to the traditional fledgling superdude motions Chris goes through. You’re never convinced that there’s a reason Chris has to be the Phantom, other than that the mythology of the comics says so. He just sort of lets himself be ushed into fighting crime for the hell of it, undercutting a lot of what the Phantom stands for and stripping him of whatever personality he had left.

If you’re not that familiar with the character, The Phantom won’t make you a fan. If you’re sick to death of superhero origin movies, it’s not about to change your mind, either. It’s a basic comic book actioner that wrings a pretty dull but harmless experience out of a bloated three-hour running time. Jeer at the Billy Zane movie all you want, but where that had pirate ships, gunfights, and laser skulls, the new Phantom has a hero less likely to slam evil than he is to do the Dew.

“Bunraku” (2010)

 

There’s always an alarmist reaction to any stylistic innovation in film. Remember when people were scared that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within would put flesh-and-blood actors out of work? Or when Sky Captain spelled doom for physical sets as we knew it? I think we made it through just fine, and judging from how well Bunraku performed, we needn’t fear a samurai/western/video game/comic book hybrid craze striking cinema next. It’s a film that wants to give all these genres and mediums the Sin City treatment, compiling them all into one very visually distinct package. But although Bunraku does achieve a few moments of coolness, they aren’t worth sitting through a final product this jittery, unfocused, and ultimately uninteresting.

Okay, so in the future, blah blah, war ravages the planet, blah blah, death and destruction. Long story short, guns are banned after mankind blows most of itself to kingdom come, its survivors huddled in cities modeled after what can only be some anime version of Dick Tracy. Keeping the masses in check is Nicola (Ron Perlman), whose reign as the orneriest bastard around has gone undisputed for decades. But from the ranks of the downtrodden rise two challengers with their own reasons for gunning after him: justice-seeking warrior Yoshi (Japanese performer Gackt) and a nameless drifter (Josh Hartnett) with even more mysterious motivations. Slashing and bashing their way through Nicola’s legion of color-coordinated killers, the dudes soon realize that teaming up is the best way to take down their common and heavily-bearded foe.

Bunraku takes its name from a form of puppet-based Japanese theatre, and this flick is anything, it’s really damned theatrical. Among the tools writer/director Guy Moshe uses to spice up the story are the aforementioned marionettes, rear projection, CG animation, and, in a way, paper cut-outs. Moshe is one ambitious fella, but the amount of stuff he wants to accomplish is greater than his capacity to whip it all into a singular, disciplined shape. All of the elements Bunraku has at work can come together well, but here, the finished effects feels like a dozen different movies jostling for attention at the same time. The tone changes from camp martial arts romp to stoic swordsman drama to film noir western, with such varying degrees of seriousness and silliness along the way that you stop caring about what’s taking place fairly early on.

That’s not to say Bunraku is a total slouch, as the visuals do work in its favor quite a bit. I liked the variety of simple, in-camera effects used to put characters speaking to each other from miles apart in the same room together, and the fight sequences were mostly solid (I especially dug Hartnett’s single-take takedown of an entire police station). But even with a story as basic as “kill the big mean bad guy,” Bunraku‘s colliding dispositions make it too complicated to get into. Yoshi and the drifter’s quest to bring down Nicola has no weight, Mike Patton’s intrusive narration detracts from the atmosphere of badassery rather than evoke it, and a completely useless subplot with Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore as former lovers receives equally anticlimactic closure.

A very flawed but stylish sore thumb sticking out amidst an increasingly homogenized action movie market, Bunraku has “cult favorite” written all over it. Just give the DVD some time to catch on, and in ten years, I’m sure you’ll have Josh Hartnett cosplayers crawling all over the place. But I’ll leave the heralding to someone else, because for all the things Bunraku tries to pull off, being a nice try is what it succeeds best at.

“The Freshman” (1925)

 

Charlie Chaplin had the market cornered on compassion and sentiment. Buster Keaton executed borderline-superhuman feats with deadpan detachment. They were masters of their craft for a reason, but of all the silent era comics I’ve seen to date, the one closest aligned with the common man is Harold Lloyd. Even though his films freely embrace the fantastic (look no further than the legendary clock sequence from Safety Last!), Lloyd’s characters are never removed too far from reality to get behind. 1925’s The Freshman is a prime example of Lloyd playing an average schmoe to great effect, landing in various comedic scrapes while pursuing an honest goal with which it’s impossible not to identify.

Lloyd steps into the shoes and letterman sweater of Harold Lamb, a young greenhorn pleased as punch to be finally attending college. Books and movie shows have visions of varsity glory dancing through his head, but this wouldn’t be a comedy if he didn’t have a rude awakening first. Almost immediately, the campus bullies single out Harold and string him along, making him think his naive stabs at winning friends and influencing people are working after all. But as Harold stumbles through football practice and hosting parties, he catches the eye of pretty Peggy (Jobyna Ralston), whose affection is all the motivation he needs to work hard for the respect he desperately craves.

I’m always puzzled by people who claim that they simply can’t get into silent films, no way, no how. Are that many modern viewers so taken aback by pictures of the past that they can never hope to understand what’s going on? Classics are classics because they embody themes that time can’t erode, which is why The Freshman was a greater pleasure to watch than the last five displays of emotionally-stunted frat boy antics that pass for modern Hollywood comedy. It’s a familiar plot — guy who wants to be popular does everything he can to become so — but it’s also fortunate enough to have a lot of heart and a lot of laughs on its side.

You can really relate to Harold’s plight, not because he just wants everyone to like him but because you do like him as he soldiers on. He’s not a jerk who abandons his values just to gain social standing (did you hear that, Diary of a Wimpy Kid?); he’s a nice kid who stretches himself a little thin in the name of making friends. This, in turn, feeds right into the comedy, where Harold’s efforts to be part of the crowd frequently clash with his indomitable dorkiness. There’s an extended sequence in which (courtesy of a half-finished suit) Harold literally comes apart at the seams during a campus bash, and the requisite Big Game that serves as our climax is a terrific pratfall-palooza. But through it all, we’re never laughing at Harold but rather rooting for him to win the game, get the girl, and learn that being liked for your true self is always the better option.

I don’t know what kept me from boning up on Lloyd’s filmography for so long, but I’ll gladly take whatever punishment I must as penance. I’m not as enamored with or enriched by The Freshman the same way I am in the case of something like City Lights or Sherlock Jr., but I still love it and laughed just the same. Besides, where are you going to get a more accurate depiction of college on film than a movie where no one ever goes to class?

“Le Havre” (2011)

 

A crotchety old man. A wide-eyed youngster. These stories write themselves, and judging from the overwhelmingly sappy movies they often become, you wonder how true that statement is. But Le Havre wasn’t cranked out by a diabolical screenwriting robot but by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, whose The Man Without a Past let viewers know that he’s not about to share a traditional-sounding narrative without a quirky streak. Le Havre isn’t quite as overtly oddball, but thanks to its wry, understated style, its message is delivered with greater sincerity than its Hollywoodized counterparts.

A self-professed Bohemian once upon a time, Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) is now spending his twilight years as a shoe shiner in the portside hamlet of Le Havre. Supporting his wife (Kati Outinen) and himself on spare change and whatever food he can mooch off the neighbors, Marcel leads an unremarkable life that’s soon changed in two big ways. After his spouse checks into the hospital for an illness she’d rather keep secret, a wayward freighter carrying African immigrants docks in town. One little boy (Blondin Miguel) escapes the authorities and crosses paths with Marcel, who, after sheltering the kid, inspires his fellow townsfolk to pitch in and see that the little dude is reunited with his family.

What struck me about Le Havre is about how showy it wasn’t. We’ve all seen those melodramas that cram every frame with emotional outbursts and tearful reunions that, for the most part, don’t ring very true for me. Kaurismäki knows that yelling about how warm and fuzzy you are is no replacement for actually being warm and fuzzy, and the unhurried pace at which he tells his story reflects that. But the beauty of Le Havre is that this approach coincides perfectly with what the film is all about — that doing a complete stranger a kindness is so easy. No blubbering or moral contemplation necessary; sometimes, you just have to do the nice thing.

With no dramatic bullet points or a devotion to stick to them, Le Havre is free to let loose with those humorously droll touches for which Kaurismäki is beloved. Nothing really amounts to more than a nice chuckle, but the world Kaurismäki lays out before us is all the more interesting because of the slightly off-kilter lives his characters lead. It’s an ensemble that contains elderly rockers with sweet pompadours and Vietnamese immigrants pretending to be Chinese, each performance given with affection and led brilliantly by Wilms. Imperfect but with a good heart, Marcel is a scoundrel you’d want on your side, and that Wilms never condescends for your sympathy is a testament to the fantastic acting he brings to the table.

Le Havre is the type of movie where the bad guys are only bad guys just so they can wear those cool old trenchcoats. It gives you the impression of being halfway between Jim Jarmusch and Napoleon Dynamite, deadpan and random but with an underlying sweetness to which you immediately respond. Though not a life-altering inspirational fable for our times, Le Havre is still perfect to pop in whenever a grey day sneaks up.

“The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939)

 

It’s weird how the most famous screen depiction of Sherlock Holmes spent little time in the era for which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle intended him. After Universal assumed control of the series begun by 20th Century Fox, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. Watson (Nigel Bruce) were quickly put to work chasing Nazis and assorted other baddies in a modern setting. But before Fox let go of what went on to become a thriving franchise, audiences got two outings set in that classic gaslight age: The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. The former needs no introduction (being the most well-known and filmed Holmes story), but Adventures puts on a plenty good show of its own, supplying an engaging battle of wits onto which fans should have no trouble latching.

Just like Batman and the Joker or Mike Nelson and Pearl Forrester, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a constant struggle with one man — Professor Moriarty (played here by George Zucco). As Adventures opens, Moriarty narrowly escapes being sentenced for his latest terrible crime and immediately formulates a plan of revenge aimed at a certain, deerstalker-loving detective. The fiend’s plan to strike back at Holmes involves presenting him with two cases, one designed to keep the uber-sleuth occupied while Moriarty brings the other to fruition. Holmes can’t help but take the bait, assuming the position of bodyguard for a terrified heiress (Ida Lupino), but it’s not long before he picks up on a new trail of clues, sending him off to foil his eternal foe once and for all.

What I dug about The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that it had an extra bit of oomph that other Holmes pictures don’t. For the bulk of the film, the detective is wrapped up in the Lupino case, which, despite being meant as a distraction, isn’t a frivolous wild good chase. There’s real danger afoot, and we understand why Holmes would prefer protecting this poor girl over some big-ass jewel instead. You could almost call it a twist on Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” philosophy on building suspense; while Holmes roots out Lupino’s stalker, we’re on the edge of our seats because Moriarty’s latest crime of the century is brewing elsewhere. It’s no intricate web of thrills and chills, but with a good story and fog-drenched sets, the film has you absorbed right down to the final race against time.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes also works because it gives fans of this particular series precisely what they love about it. Rathbone’s Holmes is commanding, authoritative, and surprisingly well-rounded. Not only does he get to exercise the character’s legendary deductive reasoning here, he also shows off his skills as master of disguise and, in the climactic showdown with Moriarty, even indulges in a bit of fisticuffs. Nigel Bruce makes for as good-natured and lovable a Watson as ever, although you can definitely spot signs of the hapless bumbler the movies would eventually render him cropping up here and there. Lupino nicely evokes sympathy with her perpetually-menaced character, and Zucco’s Moriarty is a solid villain, underplayed but by no means a harmless schemer.

Sherlock Holmes has enough endearing qualities to make every new incarnation of the man interesting in its own way. Even as his latest big screen escapades move him away from cracking confounding conundrums in favor of making him an action hero, the detective’s foundation always finds a way to break through. Old-fashioned films like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes aren’t going anywhere, so long as they serve up a good mystery, some good atmosphere…and, what the hell, throw in the weird hat, too.

“The Gauntlet” (1977)

 

I just recently finished watching the Dirty Harry series, which proudly strode the line between badass and cartoony. Blunt and forceful as Clint Eastwood’s heroics were, they were often undercut by whatever facepalm-inducing stereotypes he hauled out to prove his latest point. With these letdowns fresh in my memory, I’d hoped that 1977’s The Gauntlet would be a less complicated showcase of Clint sticking it to the man and blowing stuff up real good, with no thematic hang-ups to worry about. Simple is the operative word with The Gauntlet, so much so that just about every attempt to deepen the viewing experience pumps the brakes on what might’ve been a damned exhilarating ride.

Eastwood plays Ben Shockley, a cop so burnt out that he can’t leave his car without Jack Daniels bottles spilling out. His greatest days are behind him, which is why his new boss (William Prince) assigns him to escort a prisoner from Las Vegas to Phoenix, a “nothing witness for a nothing trial.” But not only is Ben surprised to see that his new charge is a tough-talking hooker (Sondra Locke), he soon learns that the journey home is going to be damned bumpy. This gal is holding onto some information so big, the entire Vegas mob is out to kill her and taking bets on when the deed is done. But even with great odds against him, Ben remains dead set on finishing the job, no matter how many bullets he has to dodge in the process.

The Gauntlet certainly has all the makings of the kind of liberally violent, mildly sexist, and cheerfully exploitative drive-in dwellers that the 1970s excelled in churning out. It’s one of the most action-heavy pictures on Clint’s resume, with more rounds fired his way during the climax alone than he shot himself during his entire time on horseback. So then how come a movie with a basic but effective premise and the word “grizzled” in human form as its star never seem to get off the ground? How can this flick drop off so fast after its promising initial scenes, wherein it’s just Eastwood and Locke versus whatever assassin is lurking around the next corner?

In short, the more The Gauntlet peels back the layers of its story, the less interesting it becomes. Eventually, you do learn why every thug in Vegas is after Locke’s character, and no, the specifics never quite justify making such a huge show out of silencing this one person. The film simply flows more smoothly when it’s just the leads dodging danger at every turn, living in constant fear of some faceless killer popping up from nowhere to take them down. The forced and unconvincing romantic angle sure as hell isn’t getting me to care about these two, who bicker to the point of “Nag! Nag! Nag!” becoming an unofficial catchphrase (seriously, it’s The Gauntlet‘s equivalent of “Did I do that?!”). Plus, while the action sequences are executed fairly well and suited for the flick’s gritty tone, they’re doled out in such small stop-and-go intervals that the suspense never builds up as palpably as it should.

The Gauntlet has a flavor of its own, which can’t be said for the more generic thrillers Clint got himself into as the ’80s came calling. It’s a time killer that’s grown into something of a cult film since its release, though it doesn’t hold a candle to other siege flicks of the time. Feel free to dig The Gauntlet all you want, but if you need me, I’ll be hanging out at Precinct 13.