Fitzcarraldo and Five Came Back,
and a few more films

F.I.S.T. (1978)

Johnny Kovak (Sylvester Stallone) is a feisty warehouse worker, and his workplace is hell, with a boss who demands unpaid labor, and subtracts any accidental breakage from employees' pay. So Kovak quits in anger, leads the workers in demolishing some of the inventory, and becomes a union organizer for the Federation of Interstate Truckers (FIST).

Kovak rises rapidly at FIST, and we see a flurry of strikes, riots, fist fights, threats, and beatings. Of course, organized crime puts pressure on Kovak for a cut of the dues. He has the Hollywood-required heart of gold, but he doesn't mind some corruption, busting skulls, whatever it takes. 

This movie is an odd collaboration — it's produced by B-moviemaker Gene Corman, and written by the kinda schlocky Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Flashdance), but it has prestigious director Norman Jewison (Agnes of God, Moonstruck, A Soldier's Story) and cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, The King of Marvin Gardens). 

#268  [archive]
MAR. 29, 2024

The cast includes Rod Steiger, Melinda Dillon, Peter Boyle, Kevin Conway, Tony Lo Bianco, and a one-scene role for Brian Dennehy. 

It adds up to almost two and a half hours, and if you remember the name Jimmy Hoffa, you'll know the plot points well in advance. The story is occasionally interesting, occasionally cartoonish, often clichéd, but it moves fairly fast and it's not a yawn.

I only wish it was more about workers and unions, and less about Hoffa/Kovak.

When it's over, you'll know nothing you didn't already know about unions, but you'll know Johnny Kovak well enough to know he's not someone you'd want to spend 2½ hours with.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fist of Fury (1972)
a/k/a The Chinese Connection
Streaming free at Internet Archive

Don't know much about history: Even in our time, there's a grudge between Chinese and Japanese people, largely because of Japanese atrocities commuted against the Chinese during World War II. But this flick is set decades earlier, and the Japanese seem to have occupied Shanghai, so I guess that happened.

They're cruel overlords ("No dogs or Chinese allowed" in the park), and this flick is about a bloody rivalry between two martial arts schools, one Chinese and one Japanese.

Bruce Lee stars, and wins every fight. The title, Fist of Fury, seems apropos, as Lee does the kung fu thing, but often finishes off his opponent with a couple of American-style punches to the jaw. In one fight, the bad guy gets stabbed through the gut, but shows us his agonized look for too long without dropping, so Lee punches him in the jaw and down he goes.

The fights seem longer than the action movie average, which is sometimes comical. Lee battles a white guy who's wearing a tuxedo, and after five minutes of fighting the guy's bow tie is still perfect and his shirt's still white.

I don't know whether to blame the director or the editor, but we're often not given enough visual information to know what's going on. I had to replay the final scene twice to make sense of it.

The version I saw was dubbed into English, which Mr Lee spoke fluently, but that's not his voice. There's also a very corny theme song, in English, so presumably the Chinese audience didn't need to suffer through it.

As Bruce Lee flicks go, this is average, but average Bruce Lee is far better than most chop socky.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Streaming free at Vimeo

Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, called Fitzcarraldo by the natives, is a big opera buff and big dreamer. He wants to build an opera house in the Peruvian city of Iquitos, but that'll take money he doesn't have.

To get the money, he follows a different dream, using a government program to obtain a remote piece of Peruvian land, where he hopes to cultivate rubber. But first he has to get there.

To get there, he's decided to haul his ship from one river, over a mountain and into another river. And this is no rowboat. It's as long as a city block.

As you might guess, getting a big ship over a mountain is a problem. Fitzcarraldo (the amazing Klaus Kinski) uses pulleys and the blood sweat and tears of hundreds of natives, and in the long drag at least several men are killed or seriously maimed.

Director Werner Herzog, frenzied for realism, also used pulleys and the blood sweat and tears of hundreds of natives, and in the long drag at least several men were killed or seriously maimed.

Maybe we ought to be bothered by this, but I'm not. Dragging the ship over the mountain is a spectacular sight, and makes for marvelous art and entertainment. My belated condolences to the families of the dead, but this is a grand movie, even before and after the ship and the mountains.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Fitzwilly (1967)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

"The rich don't get rich or stay rich by overpaying or over-tipping or remembering the doorman's birthday."

Mr Fitzwilliam, nicknamed Fitzwilly, is the butler for an old-money old lady, only she doesn't have money any more. She's broke but doesn't know it, because Fitzwilly and the household staff steal from visitors, banks, department stores, anyone and everyone, to keep the old lady living in the style to which she's accustomed (and of course, to keep themselves employed).

Dick Van Dyke plays Fitzwilly, and I'd forgotten how easily likable he is on screen. Barbara Feldon shows up as the old lady's new secretary, and begins to suspect something's not entirely honest.

Fitzwilly is 1960s schmaltz, as empty as air, but it tells its silly story well, and made me chuckle.

Verdict: YES, albeit barely.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Five Came Back (1939)
Streaming free at Internet Archive

This opens at "Municipal Airport," where passengers are waiting for a flight to Panama. It's 1939, so the airplane has two propellers, and sleeping quarters, and makes stops along the way. 

Among the passengers:

Pete (Allen Jenkins), a middle aged man who's good with a gun, and babysitting of his young nephew, because the boy's father has "unfinished business." Clearly, Pete is a mobster.

A cop named Crimp (John Carradine), who's delivering a dreaded anarchist named Vasquez (Joseph Calleia) to justice. What Vasquez has done isn't mentioned; 'anarchist' alone is enough to make him a menace, and the cop is not all cuddly either.

Peggy (Lucille Ball) is a woman who's been around, and when the lawman says hello, her answer is: "I don't talk to cops." It's an old movie so everything's coded, but flowers are delivered to her at the airport, with a note that says, "Thanks a million for what you're doing." From these clues, I think she's flying south to have an abortion.

There's also an old couple who seem to have fallen out of love long ago; she never smiles, and he does whatever she says.

And there's a young couple eloping, who are apparently celebrities, and have reporters on their tail. 

During the flight and a layover, we get to know these nine characters, plus the pilot, co-pilot, and steward. Then there's a storm and a mechanical problem, and the plane is forced to land, far from civilization.

The movie's biggest surprise is that the anarchist is not particularly nuts. Which shouldn't have been a surprise, because hardcore lefty and personal-hero-of-mine Dalton Trumbo was one of the writers. In mainstream movies, though, when have you ever seen an anarchist portrayed as anything but evil? This, and Reds, but other than that, never.

Three writers are credited with the screenplay: Jerry Cady, who wrote Call Northside 777, Cry Danger, and Island in the Sky; Nathaniel West, who wrote the novels The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts; and my man Dalton, who wrote or co-wrote Gun Crazy, He Ran All the Way, Johnny Got His Gun, Lonely Are the Brave, Papillon, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, Town Without Pity, etc, and was of course blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, one of the greats from the noir era (The Blue Gardenia, Clash by Night, The Hitch-Hiker, Out of the Past).

Directed by John Farrow, Mia's father, but for this I'll forgive him that. It's excellent.

Verdict: BIG YES.

P.S. Lucille Ball is not funny in this movie, nor is she trying to be. It's a straight dramatic role, and she's so good it got her promoted from bit player to bigger parts.


• • • Coming attractions • • •     

The Five Deadly Venoms (1975)
Five Easy Pieces
Five Elements Ninjas
(500) Days of Summer
Five on the Black Hand Side

... plus schlock, shorts, and surprises

— — —
'Movie reviews' that that simply recount the plot, paragraph after paragraph, suck. My pledge to you: I'll only give the basics of a movie's premise, with no spoilers after that.  
— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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