The Laughing Policeman, and six more movies



Nov. 20, 2022

Tonight — low-budget witchcraft, big fish, bad Christians, a really really really big cloud in space, a policeman who never laughs, everyone's gen-x, and a girl on a green screen.

• Elmer Gantry (1960)
• Frankenfish (2004)
• The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)
• In Time (2011)
• The Laughing Policeman (1973)
• Roach (2019)
• Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) 

Again like last time, there are several good flicks here, but no truly great ones. I'll try harder next time.

Best of these is probably The Laughing Policeman. 

The big disappointment is Elmer Gantry, but I'm still recommending it.

The one I'll watch again, complaining all the way but loving it, is Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

— — —

Elmer Gantry (1960)

Based on the terrific novel of charlatanry by Sinclair Lewis, this begins with a long disclaimer, wherein every sentence ends with an exclamation point! Basically, it says that Christianity is marvelous! but "Freedom of Religion is not license to abuse the faith of the people!"

I'd never seen this movie before, and I am underwhelmed. The problem, for me at least, is that the movie is so half-assed, compared to the book.

A seedy preacher becomes famous for his revival meetings. That's the story, but about two-thirds of the book isn't here, and what's on-screen has been changed, and made more Christian. Lewis was an atheist, and his book was less forgiving of all this fakery in God's name.

Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons star, and Simmons is fine, and Lancaster is the ham he usually was. He overplays the role with ludicrous smiling and glad-handling, especially in the movie's first third, and it's a knife in the character's chest.

Elmer Gantry ought to be someone Christians believe in almost as much as their God, someone with a touch of subtlety to the scam. Your average Christian is not dumb enough to believe the sincerity of Lancaster wearing such a huge, unnatural idiot-grin.

Shirley Jones plays a character completely changed from the book, but I will acknowledge that she's terrific in the role. Kinda freaky seeing the mom from The Partridge Family and the librarian from The Music Man as a scheming young prostitute.

Screenplay and directed by Richard Brooks. Photographed by John Alton. Music by Andre Previn.

It's all probably better than this review, but I love the book, and all through his career I never cared for Burt Lancaster, so how could I not be disappointed?

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Frankenfish (2004)

An easygoing swamp fisherman falls into the water and gets eaten. With a title like Frankenfish that's not a surprise, but the movie isn't entirely schlock, and that's a surprise.

It was filmed on location in Alabama swampland, and the people — houseboaters and alligator hunters — feel authentic. There's no poking fun at 'em, except for one crack about "the dark side of Hee-Haw."

You gotta have a sense of humor in a flick like this, and it does, but not so much as to make it a comedy. Extra kudos because some of the on-screen deaths are gruesome enough so make me shout oh my golly, but not so sickening as to be too sickening.

"Never get out of the boat."

I don't think a real biologist would wear a bikini top on duty, but I don't object. And the frankenfish in the swamp are smarter and more strategic in their attacks than a real frankenfish would be. And yeah, I typed that. 

Best served with chips on the side. Jolly good.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968)

This is a self-indulgent arty film about a woman who finds her husband boring, her lover more interesting, and her motorcycle most interesting indeed. Marianne Faithfull is the title character and clearly the center of the film, yet she gets second billing. 

Much of this is narrated from her inner perspective, and occasionally director Jack Cardiff makes the colors go psychedelic, for no reason I could ascertain. The score is nice, the setting is European and very pretty, and the motorcycling theme predates Easy Rider.

It's not a bad film really, but it straddles the line — it's deep enough that you have to wonder what it means, but not deep enough to mean anything. 

And if you're going to call a movie Girl on a Motorcycle, at some point Ms Faithfull should be on a motorcycle. Every time we see her riding, she's very obviously in front of a green screen, with highway film projected behind her, and it looks literally unbelievable.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦

In Time (2011)

The premise is borrowed from Logan's Run, and it's helpfully explained before the opening credits: 

"We're genetically engineered to stop aging at 25. The trouble is, we live only one more year, unless we can get more time. Time is now the currency. We earn it, and spend it. The rich can live forever, and the rest of us? I just want to wake up with more time on my hands than hours in the day."

I like the concept. Your job pays you in hours, not dollars, and your rent is paid by sticking your wrist in a tube and getting a week deducted from your life. Time is money, made more bluntly real.

The movie, though, is cold and barely interesting.

Will Salas is from the ghetto, where everyone's time is short. Sylvia Weis is a rich girl, from a town where people live for centuries. The script makes ample mention of the inequity and injustice of this system, and Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried star, and speak those lines, but I never believed either of them for even a moment.

Because of the genetic manipulation, even the oldest characters in the movie are played by 20-something actors, so there's zero gravitas. It's like a high school play, with kids playing grandparents who look younger than their grandchildren. 

Cilian Murphy plays the bad guy, though, and he's a present-day Richard Widmark. Bad guys don't get no badder, and he's the only good thing in the movie.

Written and directed by Andrew Niccol, who did Gattaca, and I want to ask him what went wrong here? Something sure did. Gattaca had an interesting concept, and then once the basics were established, it built a story on those basics. In Time doesn't do much story-building, and plays out like a standard action movie.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Laughing Policeman (1973)

There are no laughing policemen here. No laughs at all, and not even any smiles.

The film opens with a machine-gun mass murder on a city bus, leaving several people dead. The cops show up, start their investigations, but it's just a day on the job for the police. All the bloodshed is routine, until Detective Jake Martin (Walter Matthau) notices that one of the corpses is his partner. Now the cops care. 

"I'm looking for a certain little scumbag."

"Can you narrow it down a little?"

It's a police procedural, bleak and harsh and better than most. It's refreshing that every cop in the film is actually a criminal, in the way that most cops are — happy to slap information out of you, dunk your head in the urinal, etc.

There's a scene where Matthau's new partner (Bruce Dern) casually suggests planting evidence, and Matthau doesn't bat an eye. There's a horridly mismanaged SWAT raid that goes wrong every way it can. So these are stupid, thuggish cops, just like in real life.

The clues are messy and haphazard, and frequently lead nowhere. Anthony Zerbe plays the stereotypical police captain who brusquely tells the detectives he wants results, exclamation point. Has there ever been a cop movie that didn't have that character in it?

Joanna Cassidy, Cathy Lee Crosby, and Lou Gossett are accessories after the fact.

The Laughing Policeman was filmed in slimy, sleazy parts of San Francisco, which is mostly why I watched. It's an affordable trip back to where I lived in the 1990s and early 00s, and I enjoyed visiting the slum & scum even more than the other elements of the movie. 

I'm going to pick it apart, though, as a former resident:

The opening massacre takes place on a southbound #14 bus, which we see leaving the TransBay Terminal downtown. Ah, man, the old TransBay was a great place not just to catch a bus, but to eat a cheap lunch, and it's sorta unrealistically tidy in the movie. 

Impossibly, the bus is then shown going north on Mission Street, and the murders take place as the #14 reaches Chinatown. Hey dummy, the #14 route never even comes close to that part of town. You'd have to transfer to a #30. I mean, come on.

There's also a long, loud, screeching-tires car chase that's geographically ludicrous, speeding through the Financial District, then south of Market, then somehow they're at North Beach.

More realistically, I was pleased to see that Detective Matthau properly curbs his wheels when parking on one of the city's steep hills. It's surprising how many movies get that wrong, but a native, and a cop, would know.

Next he stops at a porno palace, and when Matthau steps out — hey, that's the New Victorian on 16th Street. I lived a block away, and that theater was usually dark in the 1990s, but opened for occasional artsy fartsy screenings. No porno, though. 

There's a very brief view of a south-of-market coffee shop where I think I had donuts about a baker's dozen times. And two scenes take place at Embarcadero Center, including one that's right where the Embarcadero Cinema had a long run, years later.

Oh yeah, and the movie? It's pretty good.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Roach (2019)

For Ronald 'Roach' Brown, everything that can go wrong is going wrong. He opens his home to his hardluck brother, who soon starts sleeping with Roach's wife. Despite a stellar work record, he's passed over for a promotion, in favor of a hot woman hired just three weeks earlier. His boss explains it by saying, "Shit happens, and this time — let's be honest — it happened to you."

Down the street, an "old lady" (says the movie, but she looks fine to me) welcomes a wounded boy into her home, who steals her dead husband's ashes. To help her, Roach stands up to some bad guys on the street, and they pound him mercilessly.

It turns out that the lady he's just tried to protect is a witch, and she has an offer: "What if I can get your wife back, and all the things that you crave?"

This is a low-budget movie, made for less than the price of a new car. The actors are flesh and blood instead of muscle and makeup. When things move fast, the camerawork occasionally makes it tricky to tell what's going on. Some of the indoor scenes sound echoey, because maybe they didn't have the finest microphones and sound editing.

It's messy. If you want something slick, something that looks like every studio movie, well, go watch every other movie. This one is different. It's weird but likable, unpredictable, occasionally funny (on purpose), and creepy when it wants to be. I enjoyed it.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Ten years after the original series was canceled, Star Trek had become very popular in reruns, and Star Wars had been a big moneymaker, so Paramount Pictures brought Star Trek back as a movie.

There's a big ol' space cloud headed toward earth, and it keeps blowing shit up as it approaches, so Admiral Kirk takes command of "an almost totally redesigned Enterprise," with his old crew, and a few newbies. Brittle bread-stick Stephen Collins plays the would-be Captain who got sidelined by Kirk, and he's pissy about it. Persis Khambatta plays Ilia, and it's not her fault but she's the movie's first mistake.

Ilia is supposed to be of some alien species with such staggering sexual abilities that they're required to take a vow of celibacy before enlisting in Star Fleet, due to dangerous vaginal clamping or something.

That could be an intriguing idea if it's done right, but in pursuit of a G rating, everything about Ilia's sexuality was jettisoned like space junk. I only know what I just told you from reading fanzines in the 1970s; all the movie reveals about Ilia is that she's bald, took the vow, and that the bread-stick wants to boink her anyway.

Everyone's wearing silly new uniforms that have a sewing-kit-sized box protruding over their belly buttons. Kirk hasn't sat in the Captain's chair in years, and his character makes some dumb mistakes. Spock isn't there to help him until the movie is half over.

There's a five-minute, dialogue-free shuttle flight to the new Enterprise. Five minutes with no words. Instead there are pretty pictures of the Enterprise, and very nice music, but sheesh. You could go down the hall and push out a difficult bowel movement, and when you came back Scotty and Kirk would still be flying in the shuttle toward the Enterprise.

Later there's an absurd and never adequately explained 'wormhole effect', where everyone on the bridge shakes in their chairs for five more minutes.

And as the Enterprise continues toward the space cloud, there are several very long, uninterrupted, kinda boring special effects sequences intended to show, again, that the space cloud sure is big. There are reaction shots, with everyone in the cast being one-by-one awestruck by the bigness of the space cloud, which is jumbo-size.

This movie could be 45 minutes shorter and better if Spock simply said, "That space cloud is very large," and most of the proof of its bigness was left on the cutting room floor.

As often on the series, Spock is the only character who's interesting. He's tried and failed at Kolinahr, a Vulcan ritual to purge all remaining emotion. He never had much emotion to begin with, but now he's even less outgoing and effervescent, and his heightened emotionlessness plays into the ship's later interplay with whatever's inside the big ol' space cloud.

Which, by the way, have I mentioned? It's a big space cloud. "The space cloud, Captain — she be big."

After all this, we finally get to the center of the very big space cloud, and despite all its faults on the way, the last act of ST:TMP is genuine sci-fi goodness that always gives me goosebumps. Yeah, I've seen this movie about twenty times.

"It knows only that it needs, Commander, but like so many of us, it does not know what."

When it's over, instead of "The End," the screen says, "The human adventure is just beginning," and I used to believe that.

Directed by Robert Wise, who made a lot of good movies. This is one of them, and in some ways, it's still the best Star Trek movie.

Verdict: YES, but it takes its sweet time getting there.

 ♦ ♦ ♦

Coming attractions:

The Cut-Ups (1966)
I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)
The Quiet Earth (1985)
Real Genius (1985)
Starship Invasions (1977)
The Stepfather (1987)
WarGames (1983)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. >Your average Christian is not dumb enough to believe the sincerity of Lancaster wearing such a huge, unnatural idiot-grin.

    I beg to differ. Joel Osteen?

  2. >Next he stops at a porno palace, and when Matthau steps out — hey, that's the New Victorian on 16th Street. I lived a block away, and that theater was usually dark in the 1990s, but opened for occasional artsy fartsy screenings. No porno, though.

    I believe we saw the Short Attention Span film festival there.

    1. Yeah, I remember — a bunch of avant-garde bullshit, 2 or 3 of which were pretty good. I'd forgotten that they called the Short Attention Span, but it was all shorts.

      I don't remember any of them.

    2. I am almost certain I left early, utterly bored. But I remember you laughing heartily at a short, with clips from Michael Douglas movies, where he says "I'm sorry" over and over.

    3. I even remember that short movie. But yeah, most of what they showed that day was dreck.

  3. Yes, I think you underestimate the gilliblity of people who dedicate their lives to something that doesn't exist.

    1. I make typing mistakes every day of my life. But I looked up gillible and found the Gillible Hair & Beauty Clinic in Accra, Ghana. It's a salon for "classic ladie". I tried to make an appointment, but she's closed. Wrong side of the world.


    2. That's almost Monty Python, babe. When I become a lady on the wrong side of the world, my goal is to be a classic ladie.

    3. I try not to assume all Christians are stupid.

    4. Faith is an odd thing, and is not entirely correlated with intelligence or level of education. The most Christian person I know has two baccalaureate and two masters degrees, well-earned, and is highly respected in her field, which is her third career. She is past retirement age, and just keeps going because her constituents won't allow her to retire. She talks to God everyday and he talks to her. I don't pretend to understand it, but I've never doubted her intelligence nor her faith.


    5. There are smart Christians, and dumb atheists.

      My pop was at least one of, maybe the smartest man I've ever known. Two successful careers, both at Boeing. Believed in Jesus all his life. Pretty good man, pretty good dad.

    6. Yeah, my ex-Father-in-Law was a really good man, extremely smart, but devout. You probably met him at my wedding, but won't remember him. He was a good man.

    7. I remember a big white guy, 30 years older than you, in a polyester or tweed suit. He looked kinda like my father. Was that him?

      Moral of the story is, even Christians can be smart.

    8. Hmmm. Not "big." Short and chubby, missing a finger. He died this year, at 85, so 35-ish years older than me.

    9. Sorry about your ex-FIL's death, of course. By big I mostly meant belly. I never much see height unless someone's crazy short or tall.

    10. >There are smart Christians, and dumb atheists.<

      Right. So here's the rub: What's the difference between believing in a superior being/force and talking with him/her versus believing the 2020 election was rigged? There's no evidence for either. People suggest the laughter of children is proof that the 2020 election was rigged, but what about god?


    11. People are eager to believe what they want to believe. Me too, but I have some standards. Give me evidence.

      It's why jury trials scare me. There should be no Christians, Muslims, or other true believers allowed on a jury mulling a case's evidence.

    12. Well THAT'S not gonna happen in "one nation under God" America. The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion; Jefferson said it should also guarantee "freedom from religion", but that's not really in the text. With respect, I think my question stands, although I don't expect an answer. I wouldn't be able to answer it.


    13. > What's the difference between believing in a superior being/force and talking with him/her versus believing the 2020 election was rigged?

      The difference is that religious believers don't usually bother making up evidence; you're supposed to believe without evidence. The election disbelievers pretend they have evidence, though — maybe because of their belief in God — they don't seem to know what evidence is.

  4. I met Marianne Faithfull and shook her hand. I turned to my friend, "I just shook the hand that fondled the genitalia of The Rolling Stones." She was very nice. Saw her perform several times and she was always committed and powerful. But that movie simply did not work.

    Walter Matthau made a number of decent films during his long career. My preference remains that '70s trilogy (it's not really a trilogy, but they all came out pretty close to one another) Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, The Laughing Policeman (Yes, the Teresa Cammarero case really stuck with him, eh?) and arguably the best of all, Don Siegel's Charley Varrick. Hopscotch in 1980 or so is decent, too, but there's just something extra special about the film stock and the grittiness of '70s films that can't be duplicated. -- Arden

    1. Post-heroin? She had a horrible ride for a decade or more. It's a long-shot, but she's still alive. And I question whether she fondled Charlie's stuff, but if you have an inside source, I'm interested in history.


    2. Has there ever been an uglier movie star than Walter Matthau? That's what I like about him. We might be related.

      The 1970s was a golden era.

      I'm a big fan of The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, but don't think I've ever seen Charley Varrick. Don Siegel made the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, so of course he's a prince.

    3. I think his face has a lot of character, and character beats beauty like rock beats scissors. I say this as a man who has never finished in the top ten in a beauty contest.


    4. I pay no attention to celebrity gossip unless it's forced on me, and without a TV to stumble over the wrong channel, I am almost disconnected from such crap, but...

      But I'd be charmed to shake a hand that might've cupped the balls of Mick or Charlie.

    5. You understand that this is 50-year-old gossip, right? I don't have cable or an antenna, but I have a sort of a memory, especially for music-related stuff, and I read books. And I did have a TV 50 years ago, when Marianne Faithfull was in the wild and in the music news. The problem is less likely our lack of TV reception, and more likely the ten year difference in our ages.

      And Charlie was the straight-arrow guy in the group. He was a jazzhead who preferred to play with his jazz combo and was a long-term happily married guy, even when the Stones were young. He nearly killed Mick by clobbering him with a right cross in front of an open 8th story window for calling his hotel room and waking him at midnight. The story is in the Keith Richards biography and retold in other places.


    6. Clobbering Mick sounds great. I like the music, but in person I'd probably find a reason to hate each of them. Clobbering time for everyone.

      But rolling their stones, heck, I'd do that myself.

    7. "don't think I've ever seen Charley Varrick"

      Doug, you GOTTA watch this next.

      It's a modest film, but that's its charm. It (along with maybe Thunderbolt and Lightfoot) is essentially the blueprint for every "quirky" low-stakes crime pic of the last 50 years, but it's the original and hence the best.

      Siegel was fantastic. Body Snatchers, Dirty Harry, The Beguiled, The Shootist, on and on.

      Have you seen Straight Time? Also highest recommendation.

    8. So many good movies, so little time, even when I'm spending all my time in the recliner watching movies.

      Added to the list.

      I saw Dirty Harry so many years ago, before I was me, but now that I am I doubt I could enjoy it. Might be a challenge, though, and a challenge can be fun.

      Never seen Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and I thought it was a 1970s cop show on TV.


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