Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Warner Archive Files: THE LAST RUN (1971); NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970)

(US - 1971)

THE LAST RUN is exactly the kind of forgotten gem that makes Warner Archive's manufactured-on-demand online catalog such an invaluable source for committed cult movie nerds.  A flop at the time of its release, THE LAST RUN came out shortly after George C. Scott's  Oscar-winning turn in PATTON.  John Huston started directing, but left at some point early on after clashing with Scott.  Veteran journeyman Richard Fleischer was brought in to replace him.  If that wasn't already a troubled enough shoot, Scott likely found himself in a bit of a pickle when he and co-star Trish Van Devere became romantically involved during filming.  They got married a short time later, and were together until Scott's death in 1999.  However, also featured in THE LAST RUN was Colleen Dewhurst...Scott's wife at the time of filming.  Awkward!

THE LAST RUN, with the tag line "In the tradition of Hemingway and Bogart," is a noir throwback that probably seemed a bit old-fashioned for 1971 audiences, but it's a fine film that didn't deserve the dismissive reaction that it got.  Scott is retired mob driver Harry Garmes, living in self-imposed exile in a small fishing village in Portugal, about to take One Last Job just to see if he's still got it.  The job is driving Paul Rickard (Tony Musante), an American criminal, and his girlfriend Claudie (Van Devere) through Spain and into France.  Complications and double-crosses ensue.

THE LAST RUN is low-key and a bit formulaic, but Scott totally owns it and makes it a much better picture.  Fresh off making history as the first Oscar winner to refuse his award, Scott never had much patience for playing the Hollywood game, so it shouldn't be surprising that he took on smaller projects like this and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS when he was on top of the world after PATTON. He gets excellent support from the criminally underrated Musante, who just never seemed to catch a break and become the star he should've been.  Admittedly, it would be interesting to see what Huston would've done with the film, as the genre-hopping Fleischer never really had an auteur sense and was known more for being able to get the job done before moving on to the next one.  But it's still very good, with some exciting chase sequences, beautiful European scenery, and excellent cinematography by Sven Nykvist.  Warner Archive's DVD transfer is 2.40:1, remastered and looks very good.  No extras, not even a trailer. (PG, 95 mins)

(UK - 1970)

As his career as a 1940s-1950s leading man began to fade, Cornel Wilde (1912-1989) started dabbling in independent filmmaking as early as the mid-1950s, usually directing himself in several brutal, uncompromising films that didn't seem to gel with his dashing onscreen image. Wilde really hit his stride as a filmmaker with 1966's THE NAKED PREY and 1967's BEACH RED, neither of which were major successes but both have attained huge cult followings in the ensuing decades, so much so that Criterion released a terrific edition of THE NAKED PREY a few years back.  Some have dismissed Wilde's directorial efforts as vanity projects to show off his admittedly great physique (he spends 95% of THE NAKED PREY running around in nothing but a tiny loincloth), but around the time of Criterion's NAKED PREY set, critics and film fans started to re-evaluate his work as a filmmaker. 

While I can't imagine anyone defending his final directing effort, 1975's SHARKS TREASURE, largely a home movie disguised as a treasure hunting adventure, THE NAKED PREY and BEACH RED are now held in high regard, but until recently, that kindness wasn't extended to 1970's NO BLADE OF GRASS, which finds Wilde exclusively behind the camera.  Criticized for its ugly violence and, especially in its early scenes, preachy and heavy-handed lecturing, NO BLADE OF GRASS tanked badly.  With its sermonizing on man's violent nature (a theme explored in Wilde's previous films) and the destruction of the environment, it's clear that NO BLADE OF GRASS (based on a novel by John Christopher and co-scripted by Wilde under the pseudonym "Jefferson Pascal") is a deeply personal film for Wilde, and a message that likely got drowned by the extraordinary lack of subtlety, such as stock footage of a starving, emaciated African child juxtaposed with slobbering, racist Brits blithely stuffing their faces in a posh restaurant while blaming "the chinks" for the world's problems.  And that's just in the first five minutes. Wilde's sincerity is not in question, but christ...take it down a notch. 

Set in a world destroyed by pollution, famine, and the selfishness and greed of humanity, NO BLADE OF GRASS was probably a decade ahead of its time with its depiction of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, especially with the later introduction of a marauding motorcycle gang that looks like it came straight out of THE ROAD WARRIOR, though it does owe a bit of a debt to 1962's PANIC IN YEAR ZERO.  The focus is the Custance family, led by dad Nigel Davenport and mom Jean Wallace (Wilde's wife, an absolutely terrible actress who appeared exclusively in her husband's projects from 1952 to this, her final film), trying to get out of London and to the outlying country regions before the city is completely shut down and nerve-gassed by a government resorting to genocide.  People fighting for their lives resort to extreme measures to stay alive, and Wilde pulls no punches.  Once the protagonists are out of London, Wilde tones down the awkward, ham-fisted soapboxing and focuses on action and suspense, and the film drastically improves.  NO BLADE OF GRASS is about as misanthropic a film as you're likely to see, with heroes only slightly less ruthless than the villains, but I admire the way Wilde doesn't sugarcoat anything (you know he means business when he puts his own wife in a harrowing rape scene).  This IS how normally good people would likely act in similar circumstances, especially with the increasingly self-centered mindset of the last 42 years.  While not without its problems, NO BLADE OF GRASS is an impressively mean, grim, and disturbingly violent film for its time, and must've shocked the hell out of the few people who saw it in 1970.  Wilde only directed one more film before acting sparingly until his death in 1989, usually with guest roles on television like FANTASY ISLAND, THE LOVE BOAT, and MURDER, SHE WROTE, all shows that graciously welcomed aging actors with open arms when good roles were hard to find.

Warner Archive's remastered DVD is 2.40:1, and sales of it were temporarily suspended immediately after it was made available when the initial purchasers found that some sequences were out of order.  The problem has since been corrected. (R, 97 mins)

No comments:

Post a Comment