Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37 (1978)

(Italy/Spain - 1978)

Directed by Monte Hellman. Written by Jerry Harvey, Douglas Venturelli, Ennio de Concini and Don Vicente Escriva. Cast: Warren Oates, Fabio Testi, Jenny Agutter, Sam Peckinpah, Romano Puppo, Isabel Mestres, Gianrico Tondinelli, Franco Interlenghi, Carlos Bravo, Sydney Lassick, Natalia Kim, Helga Line, Luis Prendes, David Thompson, Tony Brandt, Luis Barboo. (R, 102 mins)

Born in 1929, Monte Hellman has always existed on the fringes of the movie industry, even on the rare occasions he found himself working for a Hollywood studio. Like many filmmakers of his generation and younger, he got his start working for Roger Corman. He made his debut with the 1959 horror cheapie BEAST FROM HAUNTED CAVE and, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Hill, and others, was one of several Corman proteges involved in the assembly of Corman's 1963 patchwork THE TERROR. Hellman then directed a pair of 1964 Filipino action films, BACK DOOR TO HELL and FLIGHT TO FURY--both featuring a young Jack Nicholson, who co-wrote FLIGHT TO FURY with Hellman--and he made a name for himself in indie circles with a pair of enigmatic 1966 westerns co-starring Nicholson, RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND (which Nicholson also wrote) and THE SHOOTING. Both were backed by Roger Corman but ended up going straight to TV and not getting any theatrical exposure until after Nicholson's big breakthrough in 1969's EASY RIDER. Hellman also benefited from the post-EASY RIDER craze of big studios backing auteur projects with minimal commercial appeal when Universal gave the greenlight to his cult classic TWO-LANE BLACKTOP. A philosophical, existential road movie where The Driver (James Taylor), The Mechanic (Dennis Wilson), The Girl (Laurie Bird), and GTO-driving GTO (Warren Oates) are the players in a slow-moving road race to nowhere in particular, TWO-LANE BLACKTOP is a mesmerizing odyssey with arguably the ultimate Warren Oates performance (it's a close call between that and Sam Peckinpah's 1974 journey into madness BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA) and one of the all-time great final cinematic images. Hellman would re-team with Oates for 1974's COCKFIGHTER and, in a sign of odd jobs to come, began work on Hammer Films' kung-fu actioner SHATTER with Stuart Whitman and Peter Cushing before studio head Michael Carreras fired him and ended up directing the film himself. Hellman's career is filled with unrealized or partially completed projects. It would be another four years before his next film, the unlikely post-spaghetti western CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37.

Co-written by Jerry Harvey, the programming director of the influential 1970s/1980s L.A.-based pay-TV station Z Channel (the subject of the 2004 Xan Cassavetes documentary Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION) who would kill his wife and himself in a tragic 1988 murder-suicide, CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37--the title refers to a road sign showing the direction and distance to the two nearest towns--is offbeat, unpredictable, and very character-driven. Though it hasn't been the easiest film to see over the years, at least in Hellman's intended 102-minute form, it's become a legitimate cult classic since its extremely spotty release in 1978, the last film handled by a bankrupt and soon-to-be-defunct Allied Artists. So spotty was that initial release that CHINA 9 didn't even play in NYC until November 1984 when Lorimar, who acquired the Allied Artists library, gave it a brief relaunch that went nowhere. It's since fallen into the public domain and regularly turns up in battered, drastically edited, cropped prints on those bargain bin western collection DVD sets, almost always missing the film's explicit sex scenes and with running times ranging from 90 minutes all the way down to a pitiful 76. Hellman's director's cut has never received an official DVD or Blu-ray release but aired on the Z Channel decades ago. That changed recently, when an uncut, widescreen print was aired without fanfare on Turner Classic Movies, buried in the coveted 4:15 am time slot on a late Monday night/early Tuesday morning.

CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37 is a strange and somber mix of nihilistic spaghetti western, Hellman character piece, and loving Sam Peckinpah homage, right down to Bloody Sam getting an affectionate "Introducing Sam Peckinpah" credit for his brief appearance as a famous writer of western dime novels. Outlaw Clayton Drumm (Eurocult vet Fabio Testi, of WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE? and THE BIG RACKET) is spared from the hangman when he's offered a cash reward and freedom if he kills Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates, by this point a Hellman fixture), a proud rancher who refuses to sell his property--which rests directly in the path of a planned rail line--to the region's chief railroad baron. Drumm finds the Sebanek ranch and comes to befriend the gruff Matthew, who sees through his guest's "just passing through" act immediately and concludes that he's a hired killer. Drumm fesses up, admitting that he came there to kill him but changed his mind about going through with it because he didn't expect to like him. What Drumm likes even more is Matthew's younger, lonely, and sexually-frustrated wife Catherine (Jenny Agutter). The two have a clandestine morning fling in the river and when Matthew confronts her, things get violent and she hits him over the head with a rolling pin and stabs him in the back in self defense. Thinking he's dead, she runs off with Drumm, but once Matthew recovers, he and his loathsome brothers are hot on the lovebirds' trail, and both parties are pursued by the railroad's newest hired killer Zeb (Romano Puppo), who has orders to kill Matthew for refusing to sell the land and Drumm for not killing Matthew.

The elements are in place for a fairly standard-issue spaghetti oater, but Hellman doesn't give in to conventional story arcs. We don't expect Matthew to figure out Drumm's intent so quickly, just like we don't expect Drumm to confess and say that friendship made him change his mind about killing him. We don't expect Drumm and Catherine to feel terrible about how they've hurt Matthew. Even though the cuckolded Matthew is constantly mocked and having his manhood questioned by his vulgar younger brothers--one of whom even tries to have his own way with Catherine--he still seeks a reconciliation. He loves his wife, even though his patriarchal upbringing (often addressing her as simply "Woman...") frequently makes that difficult for her to see or for him to demonstrate. Realizing the error of his ways and understanding why she chose to run away, Matthew just wants to make things right, even if he feels compelled to kill Drumm anyway because that's what he "should" do. But there will be no showdown between Matthew and Drumm because there doesn't need to be. Like Ethan Edwards at the end of THE SEARCHERS, Drumm knows he doesn't belong here, and when Matthew insists on facing off, Drumm refuses. There's a big shootout, but it's not between the people you assume it will be. Instead, it's Matthew, Catherine, and Drumm inadvertently teaming up to take on Zeb and his posse. CHINA 9 has its stumbles--the overwrought Ronee Blakley love ballad that accompanies the ludicrous and overlong slo-mo hotel room sex scene with Drumm and Catherine is just awful, and Testi's thick Italian accent (though the supporting actors are dubbed by many familiar voices, Testi's own voice remains) sometimes makes his dialogue tough to decipher. The latter issue could just be the sound mix: Hellman stated on his Facebook page that the "restored" version," presumably what TCM aired, has some sound issues and still didn't meet with his approval. Other than Testi's sometimes garbled line readings, I didn't have any problems with the sound. Regardless, it's a fine film and probably Hellman's last good one, and it's long overdue for a proper Blu-ray edition. The beautiful-looking print shown on TCM is a huge step in the right direction, at last doing justice to Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography.

Following CHINA 9's nearly non-existent American release, Hellman accepted a paycheck studio gig by taking over the espionage thriller AVALANCHE EXPRESS after director Mark Robson died during production in June 1978. In August 1978, shortly after Lorimar brought Hellman in to finish the film, it suffered another major setback when star Robert Shaw died unexpectedly from a heart attack while returning from a golf outing on a day off from shooting. Hellman and emergency producer Gene Corman (Roger's brother) were forced to restructure the rest of the film around Shaw's absence and subsequent rewrites caused some continuity issues that necessitated them having British voice performer Robert Rietty dub Shaw's entire performance. An uncredited Hellman and Corman (they got a "special thanks to" mention in the closing credits) did what they could to clean up the inevitable mess left behind when a movie loses its director and star in a short period of time, but the film (which also starred Lee Marvin) was a lost cause that should've been shelved, and instead opened to terrible reviews and flopped with audiences in October 1979.

Sam Peckinpah, cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, Sergio Leone,
and Hellman during a Leone visit to the set of CHINA 9 LIBERTY 37.

Hellman spent the bulk of the 1980s prepping projects that never came to fruition. In 1988, he returned after a ten-year absence with IGUANA, a $3 million Herzog-like period drama with Everett McGill, CHINA 9 star Testi, Jess Franco regular Jack Taylor, and a young Michael Madsen that played film festivals but didn't get much of a release anywhere in the world (it ultimately appeared on home video in the US in 2000). Hellman's next project was a money job that, at least in spirit, took him back to his early Corman days: the 1989 horror sequel SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3: BETTER WATCH OUT. Helming a straight-to-video third entry in a controversial splatter franchise was about as far away from THE SHOOTING and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP as an auteur like Hellman could get. He became a mentor of sorts to young Quentin Tarantino, who gave Hellman his script for RESERVOIR DOGS with the intention of having him make it until Tarantino decided to direct it himself with Hellman onboard as a producer. Hellman's involvement in RESERVOIR DOGS--how different would cinema be today had he directed it instead of Tarantino?--remains his last significant contribution to cinema to date. It would be another 16 years before he resurfaced, directing a segment of the awful 2008 horror anthology TRAPPED ASHES. 2011 brought ROAD TO NOWHERE, a tedious, barely-released nightmare noir that plays like a bad David Lynch knockoff and wasn't exactly worthy of the cineaste hype of being Hellman's first feature film in 22 years and as of now, his last. Still active at 86, Hellman teaches and seemingly prefers the emeritus scene, regularly doing Q&A's at screenings of his older films and recording commentary tracks, most recently the Criterion double feature Blu-ray release of RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND and THE SHOOTING.

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