Friday, April 28, 2023

Death Race 2000 (1975)

(This post is part of the Futurethon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis and Realweedgiemidget Reviews)

If there was ever a Golden Age for dystopian science fiction movies, it might well have been the Seventies. The decade saw the release of such films as A Clockwork Orange (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), and Rollerball (1975).  Among the best known dystopian science fiction movies from the Seventies was Death Race 2000 (1975). What sets it apart from other dystopian sci-fi movies of the decade is that it actually has a sense of humour.

Death Race 2000 is set in the year of its title. Following the World Crash of '79, during which there was widespread economic and civil unrest, the United States has become a fascist dictatorship. To keep the population complacent, the government offers up its own version of "bread and circuses," the Transcontinental Road Race. During the Transcontinental Road Race, racers cross the country, racking up bonus points for every person they kill along the way. As might be expected, the race is the year 2000 is complicated by a plot by a resistance group intent on disrupting the event. As to Frankenstein (David Carradine), the race's reigning champion, he has his own agenda.

In part, Death Race 2000 owes its existence to the novel Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny. Producer Roger Corman had wanted to adapt Damnation Alley as a movie, but 20th Century Fox held its film rights (the studio would eventually release their adaptation of the novel in 1977). Unable to produce a film based on Damnation Alley, Roger Corman then optioned the film rights to the short story "The Racer" by Ib Melchior. Published in 1956 in the men's magazine Escapade, the story was about a race during which  racers earn points for the number of pedestrians they kill. It was at this time that United Artists had announced Rollerball, a big budget, dystopian science fiction movie that also featured a violent, futuristic sport. Roger Corman figured that with Death Race 2000 he could capitalize on the publicity building up to the release of Rollerball.

The first script for Death Race 2000 was written by Robert Thom, who had written such films as All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960) and Wild in the Streets (1968). Director Paul Bartel thought Robert Thom's script could not possibly be filmed, and then wrote his own draft of the screenplay. This was in turn rewritten by Charles B. Griffith, who had written Not of This Earth (1956), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), and The Wild Angels (1966).

The lead role of Frankenstein was ultimately filled by David Carradine,then best known for the TV series Kung Fu. Paul Bartel had seen him in the play The Royal Hunt of the Sun and was suitably impressed. In addition to David Carradine, Death Race 2000 also featured cast members who would shortly become famous. Sylvester Stallone played Frankenstein's chief rival, the Chicago style gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo, only a little over two years before the release of Rocky (1976). Martin Kove, who would later play John Kreese, the antagonist in the Karate Kid movies, played the Roman-themed racer Nero the Hero.

Of course, among the biggest stars of Death Race 2000 are the cars themselves. They were designed by James Powers and constructed by Dean Jeffries (who had also been responsible for Black Beauty on The Green Hornet and the Monkeemobile on The Monkees). The cars were constructed using Volkswagen chassis. Unfortunately, none of them could go over 40 miles per hour. The cars were then shot undercranked in long shots to give the illusion of speed.

Director Paul Bartel and producer Roger Corman would come to a disagreement during the shooting of Death Race 2000. Paul Bartel felt that the concept of the movie was inherently violent, so there need be little blood shown on the screen. At the same time, Paul Bartel insisted on humour in the film. Roger Corman thought the audience would want violence in the film. Once Paul Bartel had finished filming Death Race 2000, he sent out a second unit to shoot scenes involving blood that could be inserted into the film. As it turned out, most of the blood inserts could not be used, as the MPAA threatened to rate Death Race 2000 "X." Afterwards the MPAA gave it an "R" rating, some of the blood inserts were put back into the film.

Death Race 2000 ultimately cost $480,000. It made a respectable profit, earning $4.8 million in the Untied States alone. The film received decidedly mixed review from critics. Roger Ebert's review was largely negative and he was surprised by the presence of children in the theatre, stating "... I was torn between walking out immediately and staying to witness a spectacle more dismaying than anything on the screen: the way small children were digging the gratuitous bloodshed." In The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that Death Race 2000 has  "....nothing to say beyond the superficial about government or rebellion. And in the absence of such a statement, it becomes what it seems to have mocked—a spectacle glorifying the car as an instrument of violence." On the other hand, Tom Shales of The Washington Post and Kevin Thomas of The Los Angeles Times were more positive with regards to Death Race 2000. Tom Shales called it, " of the zippier little B pictures of the year," while Kevin Thomas called it, "a fine little action picture with big idea."

Much of the reason Death Race 2000 may have received mixed reviews upon its initial release is that the film was in some ways something of an anachronism. While Roger Corman cut much of Paul Bartel's humour from the film, it plays like such works of Sixties camp as the 1960s TV show Batman and the movie Barbarella, but with ultraviolence thrown in to boot. The racers are all colourful characters with cars that match their respective personalities. As mentioned above, Sylvester Stallone plays Machine Gun Joe, a racer who acts and looks like a 1920s Chicago gangster, while Martin Kove's Nero the Hero has an ancient Roman theme, right down to his helmet. The other racers are the Western themed "Calamity Jane" Kelly (Mary Woronov) and the neo-Nazi  Matilda "The Hun" (Roberta Collins). Not only are the racers over the top, but so too are the numerous deaths throughout the film. While Roger Corman simply wanted an ultraviolent science fiction action movie, Paul Bartel delivered what is at times a cartoonish comedy.

Of course, in addition to being intentionally camp, Death Race 2000 also works as satire. It portrays the media as exploitative, covering every death during the Transcontinental Road Race in detail. The government in Death Race 2000 has gone so insane as to believe its own propaganda, and has no concern for the safety of its citizens. Only the Resistance is treated with some respect in the film. Sadly, in some ways Death Race 2000 seems a bit prescient, given the popularity of reality shows and, even more so, the media's habit of airing bodycam videos of people's deaths.

While Death Race 2000 received mixed reviews upon its release, it has since become a cult film. In 1995 a series of comic books serving as a sequel to the film, Death Race 2020, was published. In 2008 a poorly received remake, Death Race, was released. It was followed by two direct-to-video sequels. In 2017 there was an official sequel to the film, produced by Roger Corman and released direct to video, Death Race 2050. This sequel was somewhat better received than the 2008 remake.

While Death Race 2000 received mixed reviews upon its initial release, its reputation has improved since. It currently has a rating among critics of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of course, it long ago became a cult film. Ultimately, Death Race 2000 is a camp classic that combines gratuitous violence with a sly sense of humour to satirize both the media and the government.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Noir Alley Returns to TCM in May 2023

Noir Alley, Turner Classic Movies' Saturday night and Sunday morning programming of classic film noirs, has been off the air for nearly two months. In March it was pre-empted by 31 Days of Oscar. This month it was pre-empted by TCM's celebration of the 100th anniversary of Warner Bros. Fortunately, for noir fans, Noir Alley returns next month. There can be no doubt that fans of film noir will be very happy. Below are the movies showing on Noir Alley next month.

The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), May 6 2023: Barbara Stanwyck stars as the title character, who brings intrigue into the life of Assistant District Attorney Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey). It was the last film noir directed by Robert Siodmak, who had also directed such classic noirs as The Killers (1946) and Criss Cross (1948). It is also the only time the director worked with Barbara Stanwyck.

Flamingo Road (1949), May 13 2023: The name "Joan Crawford" should be enough to get many to watch this noir. She plays a carnival dancer who plots revenge on a corrupt sheriff. It was based on the novel by Robert Wilder, which also provided the inspiration for the 1980s TV series starring Morgan Fairchild.

Dial 1119 (1950), May 20 2023: A low-budget movie from MGM  in which a psychotic killer holds a bar and its customers hostage. Dial 1119 was directed by Gerald Mayer, who was the nephew of Louis B. Mayer. He would later move into television, directing several episodes of The Millionaire, Man with a Camera, and other shows.

The Fallen Sparrow (1943): In The Fallen Sparrow Spanish Civil War veteran John "Kit" McKittrick (John Garfield) investigates the murder of a friend, and finds himself pursued by Nazi spies who want an artefact that he possesses. Its screenplay was written by Warren B. Duff, who had earlier written Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and would later write the screenplays for the noirs Appointment with Danger (1951) and The Turning Point (1952).

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

The Late Great Harry Belafonte

Singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte, who had such hits as "Banana Boat Song" and appeared in such movies as Carmen Jones (1954) and Odds Against Tomrrow (1959), died today, April 25 2023, at the age of 96.

Harry Belafonte was born  Harold George Bellanfanti Jr. in New York City on March 1 1927. It was in 1936 that his family moved to his mother's native Jamaica. They lived there for five years. After moving back to New York City, he attended George Washington High School. During World War II he dropped out of school to enlist in the United States Navy.

Following his service, Harry Belafonte worked as a janitor's assistant. A tenant, whose apartment he had repaired, gave him two free tickets to the American Negro Theatre. He eventually joined the American Negro Theatre and played the lead in its production of the Sean O’Casey play Juno and the Paycock. He later studied acting at the Actors Studio and the Dramatic Workshop at the New School for Social Research. It was during this period that he became friends with fellow actor Sidney Poitier.

It was also during this period that Harry Belafonte began singing in clubs. He eventually signed with RCA Victor and his first single, a cover of "Gomen-nasai" was released in 1953. His first album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, was released the following year. His second album, Belafonte, released in 1956, would be the first number one album on the Billboard Pop Albums chart. His third album, Calypso, also went number one on the chart. It proved phenomenally successfully, becoming the first album to sell over 1 million copies. It also triggered a calypso craze that overtook the United States in the mid to late Fifties. Harry Belafonte continued to have success on the Billboard album chart, recording in several other genres, until The Beatles and the British Invasion in 1964. His live album Belafonte at The Greek Theatre would be his last to reach the top 40 of the Billboard Pop Albums Chart. In total he recorded a total of 28 studio albums, the last being Paradise in Gazankulu in 1988. He also continued to perform live.

Harry Belafonte made his film debut in 1953 in Bright Road. The following year he appeared in the screen adaptation of Carmen Jones (1954). In the late Fifties he appeared in the movies Island in the Sun (1957), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).  He made his television debut in 1949 as a regular on the show Sugar Hill Times. In the Fifties he appeared on such variety shows, talk shows, and games shows as Cavalcade of Stars, The New Revue, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, America After Dark, The Nat King Cole, The Steve Allen Show, Person to Person, The Bell Telephone Hour, and What's My Line. He appeared on the anthology shows Front Row Center and General Electric Theatre. In 1960 he had his own television special, Belafonte, New York 19. He made his debut on Broadway in John Murray Abraham's Almanac in 1953. In the Fifties he also on Broadway in 3 for Tonight, Moonbirds, and Belafonte at the Palace.

In the Sixties Harry Belafonte appeared on such variety shows, talk shows, and game shows as The Perry Como Show, Talent Scouts, The Les Crane Show, The Bell Telephone Hour, The Danny Kaye Show, What's My Line, ABC Stage '67, Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and The David Frost Show. He made a famous appearance on Petula Clark's 1968 special Petula, He appeared in the movie The Angel Levine (1970).

In the Seventies Mr Belafonte appeared in the movies Buck and the Preacher (1972) and Uptown Saturday Night (1974). On television he appeared on The Diahann Carroll Special, The Lee Phillip Show, Soul!, Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Julie Andrews Hour, The Flip Wilson Show, The CBS Festival of Lively Arts for Young People, the TV special Free to Be...You and Me, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Muppet Show.

In the Eighties Harry Belafonte helped organize the song "We Are the World," a multi-artist charity single for African famine relief. On television he appeared in the TV movie Grambling's White Tiger. He appeared on Broadway in Asinamali!. In the Nineties he appeared in the movies The Player (1992), Prêt-à-Porter (1995), White Man's Burden (1995), and Kansas City (1995). On television he was a guest voice on the animated series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child and PB&J Otter, and appeared in the TV movie Swing Vote. In the Naughts he appeared in the movie Bobby (2005). He made his last movie appearance in BlacKkKlansman in 2018.

Harry Belafonte was an incredible talent. He possessed a powerful, yet elegant voice that made him one of the best singers of the era. It is little wonder that he sparked the calypso craze of the Fifties. Of course, while he was known as the King of Calypso, he performed in a variety of genres, including folk music, blues, gospel, and American standards. Few singers saw the success that Harry Belafonte did, with millions of records sold throughout his career.

He was not only a talented singer, but also a talented actor. He shined as Joe, the soldier who became involved with the title character in Carmen Jones. What might have been his best performance was in Odds Against Tomorrow, in which he played Johnny Ingram, a nightclub singer who becomes part of a heist because of his gambling debt. The film was produced by Harry Belafonte's company HarBel Productions. In Buck and the Preacher he played Willis Oaks Rutherford, a dodgy individual who claims to be the preacher of the title. In Uptown Saturday Night he played the temperamental gangster  Dan "Geechie Dan" Beauford. In Kansas City he played another gangster, Seldom Seen, who made Geechie in Uptown Saturday Night look tame in comparison. Harry Belafonte played a variety of roles throughout his career, playing characters who were very different from each other. He always gave good performances.

Beyond being a talented actor and singer, Harry Belafonte was also a great activist and humanitarian. He was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and was even close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1961 Mr. Belafonte supported the Freedom Rides and voter registration drives. He bailed Dr. King of out jail during the Birmingham Campaign in 1963, and raised an additional $50,000 to bail out other civil rights activists.In 1963 he helped organize the March on Washington. In 1964 he financed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He also served as a a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador with regards to juvenile justice issues. He also supported Amnesty International, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, the American Indian Empowerment Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and several other charities and activism groups. Harry Belafonte's mother told him, "Don’t ever let injustice go by unchallenged." Throughout his life, he lived her words.